The feminine art of the hustle: how Britons became obsessed with working for themselves

By Dr Amy Edwards, Senior Lecturer in the Department of History, School of Humanities

To celebrate International Women’s Day, Dr Amy Edwards tells us about her project which will explore the history of women’s self-employment between 1970 and 2000. Through oral history interviews and archival research, the project will tell the story of the many thousands of women who worked for themselves in contemporary Britain. The project recently received an AHRC Research Development and Engagement Fellowship and runs until August 2025.

The way we work in contemporary Britain is changing. Working from home, hustle culture, flexi-work, the gig economy: these are all familiar phrases that capture something about the nature of when, how, and for who we earn money in the twenty-first century. At the heart of many of these developments is the idea that working for ourselves is a dream job.

My current project, ‘The Secret of My Success’: Women and Self-Employment in Britain (1970-2000), seeks to tell the history of Britain’s self-employed women to better understand our ways of working today. Working arrangements and business practices targeted at women throughout the post-war period pre-empted many of the ‘new norms’ we view as recent developments. In 1965, the Financial Times reported that British industry had begun ‘assiduously courting’ some ‘seven million married women’ as part of a drive to boost its labour force. ‘Women power’ it seemed, had become one answer to the problem of how to secure business growth. For one group of companies in particular, women’s economic agency, both as consumers and as sellers became the basis of their business model: direct sales. In the mid-twentieth century, American companies like Tupperware and Avon made their way across the Atlantic, bringing with them new distribution methods, which relied upon the social networks, bonds, and domestic spaces of women’s lives. In so doing, they promised economic independence and flexible working conditions suited specifically to women and other economically marginalised groups in the form of the self-employed sales representative.

Tupperware advertisement featuring a Joe Steinmetz photograph, c.1958, State Archives and Library of Florida, Tallahassee, FL 32399-0250.

Over the coming year, I’m going to be using the archives of companies like Avon, newspaper reports covering the direct sales industry, and oral history interviews to find out more about why women chose to take the leap and ‘set up shop’, and what life was like when they did. Oral history methods are an established part of contemporary historical practice and can be an excellent way of hearing the perspectives of people whose voices don’t always end up recorded in institutional records. By talking to women about their experiences of self-employment, I hope to understand how practices like working from home, subcontracting, and the dream of working for oneself became so central to our society. These women experienced both the liberating potential of new post-war business practices as well as trajectories that involved being pushed into low-skilled, part-time, precarious work.

As part of this project, I’m lucky enough to be working with Bristol Special Collections to store the oral history stories I’ll be collecting. I’m also going to be working with a local filmmaking company, Black Bark Films, to make a short documentary film about what it has meant to work for yourself as a woman over the past 70 years. Through workshops with local charities and policy makers, along with a film launch I am also hoping to help shape the ways we think about and support women’s entrepreneurship in Bristol today.

Avon Outlook, Campaign 5, Box 103, Campaign Mailings 1969 (Accession 2155), Hagley Museum & Library, Wilmington, DE 19807. Courtesy of the Hagley Museum and Library.

To learn more about the project you can hear me talking about it with the Hagley Museum and Archive where the Avon Company archives are held. This will be available from the 15th April.

Interested in being involved? 

If you are a woman who was self-employed at any time during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s (whether as a direct sales rep, a franchisee, a freelancer, or running your own business etc.) I’d love to hear from you. If you’d consider recording your memories as part of this research project, please get in touch with me at

Dr Amy Edwards is Senior Lecturer in the Department of History with research interests in the culture that surrounds business, finance, and capitalism in contemporary societies. To find out more about Amy’s research, her first book Are We Rich Yet, or ‘The Secret of my Success’ project, please contact

Voicing Silence: Amplifying the Voices of Non-Recent Child Sexual Abuse

By Dr William Tantam, Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, School of Arts

Dr William Tantam tells us about a collaborative project which sought to challenge the silencing of child sexual abuse. Taking an arts-led approach, William and his collaborators produced a ‘zine’ to engage mental health professionals, academics, and most importantly, survivors of child sexual abuse, placing their voices at the centre of clinical and policy discussions. The project received an AHRC Impact Acceleration Account award and William has since received a REPHRAIN grant to further his research.

‘Voicing Silence: amplifying the voices of victims and survivors of non-recent child sexual abuse’ sought to challenge the silencing of child sexual abuse through attention to the ways in which victims and survivors are, or have been, silenced. This silencing includes inappropriate or improper responses to disclosures of sexual abuse, poor follow up, disbelieving, and no further action taken to reporting. It also includes the pervasive cultures of silence that coalesce around child sexual abuse which make it more difficult for victims and survivors to report at the time of the abuse, and to delay disclosing the sexual abuse until later in life.

The Breaking Silences zine produced by William and his collaborators.

  • To navigate through the zine, click on the arrow icons in the bottom left and right of the zine.
  • To view the zine in full screen, click on the second icon in the top right of the zine.

The zine and workshop emerged from a network of academics, clinicians, therapists, and activists (some of whom are victims and survivors). At the heart of the group was a commitment to centring the needs and perspectives of victims and survivors, and ensuring that their voices feed into practice and policy. Network members have also disseminated the zine in their different academic, clinical, and activist communities in order to reach as wide an audience as possible, including in NHS trusts, clinical training groups, and academic environments. It is also being used as a learning material at the Tavistock Trauma Centre for professionals likely to receive disclosures of child sexual abuse.

“We wanted a zine that captured the challenges of child sexual abuse and silences, but which also captured the hope and possibilities enabled by survivor-centred approaches

The process of producing the zine enabled the group to clarify our meanings and understandings. In preparation, each of us submitted two sentences of what we would like to say in the zine. Armed with Pritt sticks and sheets of coloured card we spent two hours in groups cutting up the sentences, placing them in different orders, and considering how the meaning, tone, and voice changed as we spliced together different passages. Often these new combinations generated deeper meaning and turns of phrase, or produced new insights that we hadn’t quite articulated in our initial attempts. We were inspired by the wonderful ‘Mad Zines’ project and tried to draw on some of the energy and vitality produced in their outputs. 

A further strength – and really the heart of the final output – was the creative contributions of members of the group. Dr Khadj Rouf (zine co-editor and Consultant Clinical Psychologist with Northamptonshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust) provided beautiful poetry, complemented by a cover artwork by Dr Sara Scott, and incredible illustrations provided by the multi-talented Jenissa Paharia. We wanted a zine that captured the challenges of child sexual abuse and silences, but which also captured the hope and possibilities enabled by survivor-centred approaches.

“At the heart of the group was a commitment to centring the needs and perspectives of victims and survivors, and ensuring that their voices feed into practice and policy”

Drawing on this initial project, and a further ESRC IAA grant exploring how to improve responses to disclosures of child sexual abuse, I have developed a further project into the particular challenges faced by survivors of online-facilitated child sexual abuse, funded by REPHRAIN. Working with Dr Susanna Alyce, Co-Investigator, this new project incorporates a survivor-produced ‘zine’ that will provide key learning into this area that remains under-explored, and from the people most impacted by these insights. We are delighted to be working with SARSAS, the Survivor’s Trust, and Survivors Voices in this new project which hopes to deploy survivor-centred insights for real-world change.

Dr William Tantam is Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology with research interests in trauma and gendered violence, and technology-facilitated sexual abuse. To find out more about William’s research, the Breaking Silences zine and his new REPHRAIN grant, please email