This article analyzes wives who acted on behalf of their absent husbands in eighteenth-century New England port cities, situating them within the broader matrix of agents who acted for absent men. Wives’ management of their households enabled their husbands to pursue distant commercial opportunities, yet historians tend to overlook that wives acted within mixed-sex networks of designees and agents. Analyzing divisions of responsibility between wives and male agents reveals the extent and the limits of men’s legal and economic activities in practice. Using the case study of a merchant who absconded from Boston in 1755 and other contemporaneous examples, I argue that, while husbands placed significant trust in their wives, they saw certain matters as the domains of male professionals and used gendered language to downplay their wives’ competence. The malleability of these divisions of responsibility sparked disputes, but it also allowed wives to co-opt alliances for their own benefit.


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pp. 808-835
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