Eliza J (Cooley) Gilbert

1834 - 1930


President of the New Hampshire Women’s Suffrage Association and Superintendent of Schools in Keene.

During her short time in Keene, NH, Eliza JC Gilbert was engaged in local politics for the betterment of women.  She was born Eliza Jane Cooley on April 23, 1834 in Springfield, Massachusetts, the eldest of Lydia Dodge and George Cooley’s seven children. The family soon moved to Newburyport, MA.  When she was 17, Eliza’s father died, leaving her to assist her mother with the care of her younger siblings. 

On October 17th, 1856, Eliza married Dwight Wright Gilbert, a farmer, and native of Walpole, NH. They had two sons, Ethan Allen in 1862 and Charles Frederick four years later. By 1870, the young family had moved to West Street in Keene, NH, where they lived alongside Eliza’s mother, her oldest brother, her nephew, and her niece. 

Even while managing a full household, Eliza found that time to insert herself in local politics and matters of public education. In 1878, New Hampshire women became the first in the nation to win the right to vote in school board elections. That same year Eliza was elected Superintendent of Schools by the Keene City Council and general public. Her job was to oversee all the schools in the city during her one-year term. Eliza was paid $50 for her work, which would be about $1,300 today. 

In 1878, too, Keene voted to establish a Board of Trustees to manage the public library. The Board, it was decided, would consist of six individuals appointed by the City Council, three of which “could be women.” Eliza became the first woman in the region to serve on a library board, a position she held with her husband for ten years. 

A decade later, suffragists from Keene became more involved in fighting for a women’s right to vote at a state level. The New Hampshire Women’s Suffrage Association (NHWSA) was reorganized in 1887 at a convention in Concord. At the meeting, Eliza JC Gilbert was elected President and a member of the Executive Committee.  Other Keene residents, Mary Handerson Ela, Julia Ball Thayer, Margaret Lamson Griffin, and Pamelia Gardner Little were also elected to office.  During their term, the NHWSA petitioned for women to be given the right to vote in state matters and municipal elections, but both efforts failed. They did, however, manage to raise the age of consent for girls in New Hampshire to marry from age 10 to 13 in 1887.

Eliza and her husband Dexter eventually moved to Berkley, California in 1889 after the death of their younger son. Eliza, a well-known botanist, focused on her love of nature and edited a textbook on flowers and plants. Several specimens collected by Eliza are in Harvard’s natural history collections and are viewable online.

On November 27th, 1930, Eliza Jane Cooley Gilbert died in Los Gatos, California. She is remembered for her work as a Suffragist in New Hampshire and as a botanist of both New England and California.

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