Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
Wheaton College
College Archives and Special Collections


@ElizaBTweetin: April 27 - Not Your Average Eliza.

Posted on May 1, 2013


Full page engraved illustration for an article from Godey’s Lady’s Book, Vol. 40 (March 1850). Clifton Waller Barrett Collection, University of Virginia.

Eliza isn’t your average 19th century woman.

In a recent post Mrs. Wheaton noted that her older brother Adol. (her shorthand for Adolphus) had given her his power of attorney.

For those of you not familiar with traditional 19th century gender roles, this may seem logical. Mrs. Wheaton was a capable, entrepreneurial individual, with a head for business.  It makes sense in today’s world that she would take responsibility for her brother when Adolphus became too old to manage his business affairs.

Except that Eliza lived in a highly gendered society. One in which women could not vote, elite or upper class women did not participate in wage labor, and women’s legal authority was held by men – if not by their husbands, then by their fathers, brothers, sons or other adult male relatives.

Yet on April 27th 1872 at the age of 63, we find that Mrs. Wheaton acquired her brother's power of attorney. Adolphus could have chosen Eliza's younger brother Samuel Chapin to hold his power of attorney, but did not. This tidbit of information, sandwiched between travel plans and news of a new baby in the family, suggests that Mrs. Wheaton traversed social norms. More than that, Mrs. Wheaton behaved as though it were normal for women in her world to be given legal authority over male relatives.  Eliza isn’t typical of women during this era. In the next few weeks and months we will see, through her diaries, how the force of her personality, her status as widow, her experience overseeing her own business affairs, and her occasional disregard for established social norms allowed her to move between different social groups and exert considerable power within her family, church, the College and the Town.

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