On August 22, PRNewswire put out this bulletin: "Earlier this month the Women's Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC) and the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC) signed a historic memorandum of understanding (MOU), designed to increase opportunities for lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (LBT) women-owned businesses."
Having owned my own business since 1974, I think this is a great idea. In fact, given the current economic climate in the U.S., it's a desperately needed idea. Women-owned business isn't talked about as much as it once was, and as much as it should be.
A little history on my own area of women's business: publishing. In 1972, shortly after The Front Runner appeared, I incorporated in New York State under the name Holly Tree Inc. The corporation sheltered my author business through two national bestsellers and the next 15 years or so. For a few years, Holly Tree also had a sideline of a show-horse business. After moving to California in 1982, I eventually moved my business there. In 1994, a business partner, Tyler St. Mark, and I established a California LLC called Wildcat International, which includes our publishing imprint, Wildcat Press, as well as some film-development projects.
We American women who have done business for the last four decades can tell our war stories of those early years. Like the battles to get a credit card. For those who don't remember, single or divorced females had a hard time getting a credit card in the early '70s! In 1974, a year after I divorced and came out, American Express was the first company to give me one.
The early 1970s saw the first passionate political interest in, and support for, women-owned business. I vividly remember the thrill around 1977, when my local bank in Pawling, N. Y. (which held my mortgage), gave me a loan for property improvement relating to my animal business. The bank thought I was a good bet. I felt like I was finally sitting at the grown-ups' table. When I moved to California, I sold the business and property, paid off the mortgage and left town with a nice profit.
Meanwhile, across the publishing and media world, scores of women's presses and magazines and bookstores had popped up everywhere. Some were owned by lesbian and bi woman, some by straight women. Publishing ventures by transgendered women would come later. But all of us were driven by a passion for information and storytelling on what it means to struggle for identity and power in the late 1900s. I spent the 1980s writing a historical novel about tribal and mixed-blood women of color. My story was set in the mid-1800s, but the theme of commerce and female self-reliance was still there.
Today, as for everything else in the world -- global politics and climate change -- things have gotten more complicated for women-owned business. Today American ultraconservatism is bent on rolling back the red carpet where women have walked for the last four decades - and that will include women's business. It's funny -- and not funny -- that Pat Robertson would make his infamous statement about feminists being evil people who turn into lesbians and destroy capitalism. Robertson was referring to a whole generation of powerful females who made capitalism a real thing for women, from sports millionaire Martina Navratilova to TV financial guru Suze Orman.
In the book trade, I'm watching some scary trends that are hurting women-owned business. Waning public concern over women's issues, and growing internal problems in the trade are driving the gradual erosion of female diversity from publishing. "Women's books" are vanishing from chain stores as a major niche. In the last decade, many women's presses and women's bookstores closed their doors. So did Feminist Bookstore News. In the LGBT publishing world, pioneers like Naiad Press and Firebrand are gone, as are most of the lesbian-owned bookstores like A Different Drummer in Laguna Beach. It's true that a few new women-owned publishers have appeared. But rising costs and an unfriendly cultural climate make it a hard marketplace in which to make a profit now, let alone get a toe-hold if you're new. Publishing businesswomen mostly tell me that they get short shrift from banking and lending institutions - even the "gay friendly" variety.
For around 10 years now, I've been one of the observers warning about negative trends in the LGBT publishing world. There are certain things that the "community" and its media should be doing - like reviewing more books and patronizing community bookstores -- to support the books that are supposedly such an important part of LGBT culture. Unfortunately some people in our business and literary establishments have been slow to act - or even to see how far down the slippery slope things have slid.
The current meltdown in the lending and credit market is surely making things worse for any woman-owned business going for a business loan or re-fi right now.
So let's see if this "historic memorandum" between the WBENC and the NGLCC will be a real help for women-owned businesses - a lifeboat for those of us who are starting to wonder if the U.S. economy is becoming a postmillennial Titanic.
Copyright © 2007 by Patricia Nell Warren. All rights reserved.