Published by the Faculty of Business, Government and Law, University of Canberra


Research and Stories through a Gendered Lens

The history of the female side-hustle

May 6, 2024 | History, Gender, Domestic Load, Career, Family, Money and Finance, Business, Feature

Written by Louise Prowse

Living on a farm in regional Australia and about to welcome another child to our family unit, I was contemplating what my future commute to Sydney for my state government job would look like. It was 2019, the year before Covid, and before working from home became the norm. All of a sudden, I would be juggling multiple children’s schedules. The challenges of distance, commuting and day-care availability were starting to stack up.

As a historian and resident of rural Australia, I began to reflect on the broader social experience of rural and regional women who, challenged by distance, drought, lack of job opportunities, farm responsibilities and the desert of day-care availability, were innovatively creating ways to earn through micro-businesses and small-scale economic ventures.

Buy from the Bush (BFTB) was launched in October that year, bringing national (and international) visibility to many of these rural micro-businesses that traversed the rural-urban divide. And importantly, 97% of the businesses featured by BFTB in the first eight months were run by women and started as ‘side ventures’. What was apparent was that women were earning incomes outside of their main employment or role as primary carers, to supplement farm incomes affected by the disastrous economic and social impacts of the drought.

I began researching the history of rural and regional women’s side entrepreneurial ventures. This wasn’t easy. What international research into women’s business history shows is that women’s businesses have been historically hard to trace, not registered in women’s names (or for informal side ventures, not at all), and their economic and social significance downplayed – they operated in the shadows.

I conducted oral history interviews, pored over newspaper and magazine articles, reviewed economic and social research reports, and scoured private memoirs, diaries, family histories, personal advertisements and court transcripts.

What I found was a long-standing tradition of rural and regional women in Australia engaging in economic activities that bear a great resemblance to what would we now call side hustles.

These side businesses were often identified by other names, such as, the cottage industry, pin money or egg money – names that often downplayed or diminished the market value of their economic contribution and reinforced traditional notions of rural womanhood and societal expectations of women’s roles.

Women in the nineteenth century established small-scale businesses by selling surplus dairy, garden and poultry produce, making garments and hats, mattresses and writing articles. Into the twentieth century, articles and interviews revealed that women were taking in boarders, breeding animals, sewing and knitting garments, making soaps, jewellery, running farm tourism activities on their properties and making and selling produce.

breakfast eggs and herbs, macro shot, vintage farm table, fresh morning, local farm

Dr Louise Prowse’s research shows women in the nineteenth century established small-scale businesses, often making products at the kitchen table. Picture: Adobe Stock. 

They were performing this labour in their own home – very often at the kitchen table – and in the hours that they could spare between caring for family, running the household and working on the farm. They were selling their wares or produce predominantly within their social networks (but at times to larger companies, organisations and stores) and they were motivated to earn to for a few key reasons – to supplement the farm or their partner’s income particularly during tough economic times of environmental crises, to help support their family and to develop something of their own in the midst of geographic and social isolation and a lack of socially permissible and opportunities to earn an income.

Why is it then that side hustles are considered to be new? In my research I suggest that the universally accepted definition of the side hustle – a secondary income that is in addition to one’s main job or income earned – discriminates against historical categorisations of labour performed by women. If one’s main form of employment or role is unpaid, then a “side hustle” is technically impossible.

You must have a main income in order to have a “side” one. But if we accept that unpaid work of women throughout this period (child care responsibilities, running the household and performing farm labour) constituted a full-time responsibility, or “main job”, then any venture where women earned a side income becomes visible and can be understood through the prism of the ‘side hustle’ economic model.

What the history of Australian rural and regional women’s side businesses show is that side hustles are not new; rather, women have been engaging in this economic model, long before the term “side hustle” entered the mainstream economy and consciousness.

  • Please note: picture at top is a stock image



Dr Louise Prowse is a historian and Research Fellow at the Macquarie Business School at Macquarie University and is researching the history of side hustles and small economic enterprises of rural and regional women in Australia. Her research is part of Dr Catherine Bishop’s broader research project Gendered Enterprise: Australian Women in Business since 1880. She also works in heritage government policy, strategy and research, with a special focus on rural and regional, migrant and women's histories in Australia.

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