By Steven Froias
Contributing Writer

Over the past few years, feature stories in the local press have identified a remarkable aspect of commercial life in downtown New Bedford, and actually throughout the city.

A big percentage of small—and some not so small—businesses are the result of an amazing concentration of women entrepreneurs.

Indeed, the list is so vast of women-owned businesses that it is unfair to single out just a handful. Women entrepreneurship is an overwhelming characteristic of the New Bedford business community.

Businesses founded by or with women at the helm in New Bedford encompass every type and sort. Restaurants, retail shops, health and wellness enterprises, arts and culture orientated endeavors, and professional concerns are a partial list of the types of businesses profiled in all these stories.

And that’s in addition to the fact that women play a large role in New Bedford’s civic life, too – from City Hall to cultural institutions from the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center to the Whaling Museum.

It is a defining asset of the City of New Bedford. But, is it a new trend? Or rather, is it part of the historic DNA and heritage of the city?

Consider this, from the New Bedford Whaling Historical National Park website.

“With their whalemen husbands away for years at a time, women had to assume the responsibilities not only of heading households, but of running businesses and family farms. The progressive Quaker attitude towards gender equality encouraged the development of this female strength and capability. As one young bride wrote to her captain husband, ‘I do not know how now, but I think I shall learn, and I try very hard to do as I ought.’

“In order to make ends meet, women were often forced to find new sources of income. Some women ran boardinghouses, often paying rent to a separate homeowner to do so. In the early part of the 20th century, the influx of immigrants to New Bedford led to a real need for housing. Abbie Gant, a 43-year-old African American widow, housed the entire crew from a single whaleship in her boardinghouse at South Water Street.”

The website then goes on to profile a selection of women from the 19th and early 20th centuries who, by circumstance, became the forerunners of today’s women entrepreneurs that have essentially revitalized downtown New Bedford—again—and made their mark in every neighborhood in the city.

“New Bedford has always run on the power of women,” says Jennifer Smith, superintendent at the New Bedford Whaling Historical National Park. “From whaling to modern-day commercial fishing and the textile industry in between, women have done it all – from managing the home, to working alongside their partners, to establishing and operating community organizations.

“New Bedford women were at the forefront in the establishment of benevolent societies, educational institutions and in social movements such as abolitionism. This tradition continues today as many of the city’s non-profit organizations and small businesses are currently led by women.”

So significant is this legacy that the New Bedford Whaling Museum – led by President and Chief Executive Officer, Amanda D. McMullen – created a special exhibition entitled “Lighting The Way,” which looked at the “remarkable, historic women who shaped their SouthCoast communities, the nation, and the world.” Find out more here.

At the New Bedford Economic Development Council, we see this phenomenon first hand. Due to the many hands-on programs and services the NBEDC offers to local businesses, our staff interact almost daily with city small businesses—and can’t help but realize that more often than not, we’re working with women entrepreneurs to realize their dreams and goals in the city.

“Working with women entrepreneurs when I was at the NBEDC was a revelation,” says Angela Johnston, former Director of Business Development and Communications, and now Director, Business Solutions and Partnerships for Bristol Community College.

“The energy women brought to business in the City of New Bedford was tangible, and, I believe, a game-changer for our revitalization initiatives during my time at the NBEDC. Working with women business owners constantly reminded me that we were writing a new chapter in a fabulous story that is still unfolding.”

When the NBEDC launches new pandemic recovery support programs in the coming weeks, we know that women entrepreneurs will be at the forefront of bringing to life a new vision in the city. Just as they were so very long before the challenges of the past few years.

Indeed, working together, we’re certain that the future doesn’t simply offer recovery, but reaching an entirely new level of promise and opportunity unseen before in New Bedford – rooted in its legacy of enterprise and renewal for all.

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