A few women in British Colonial America participated in trade. In England, some had done so since at least the fourteenth century, and a small number even belonged to guilds.
Most colonial businesswomen were widows who had taken over upon the death of their husbands or single women forced to support themselves and perhaps a few dependents. But working for pay was hardly typical for women, and operating as a merchant was even rarer.
During the revolutionary era women made up less than 10 percent of all the traders in Boston. At most, only about 2 percent of New York’s substantial merchants were women. One was Mary Alexander, who was born Mary Spratt in 1693. In 1711 she married merchant Samuel Provoost, and when he died in 1719, Mary took over his dry goods business. In 1721 she married James Alexander, a prominent attorney and member of the New York Council, with whom she had seven children in addition to the three that she had with her first husband.
According to James Alexander, Mary did not let child-bearing stop her from continuing her business; in fact she was back at the store the day after giving birth to one of her daughters, selling goods worth some thirty pounds. When James died in 1754, Mary was named the executrix of his estate.
Yet no matter how large their businesses might be, colonial American female merchants rarely sought political clout. The New York Chamber of Commerce, founded in 1768, had no female members, and none seemed interested in joining.