Saturday, January 21st, 2017 was the 369th anniversary of the first woman’s request for the right to vote in the New World. Margaret Brent (ca. 1601-1671) is sometimes cited as the first woman suffragist, and the first woman lawyer in the colonies. Regardless of how she is labeled, she was an original and made a legal first.
Margaret Brent was born into a prominent Catholic family in Gloucestershire, England, and lived there until she came to Maryland with her sister Mary and two brothers, Giles and Fulke, in 1638. The colony of Maryland promised freedom of religion to Catholics, and she sought religious freedom and economic opportunity. At Margaret Brent’s request, Lord Baltimore gave “instructions granting the Brents land in Maryland on the same terms that had been granted the first investors.” Margaret and her sister Mary settled in St. Mary’s City and became successful landowners and business people. She was unusual for women of her time because she was an unmarried freeholder and successful in business when the ratio of men to women in the colony was six to one.Margaret represented herself and her brothers in court, suing for debts and “protecting her interests;” court records show Margaret Brent’s name 134 times between 1642 and 1650 (Loker, Brigands, 25). With Leonard Calvert, Maryland’s governor, Brent served as joint guardian for Mary Kittamaquund, daughter of the Piscataway chief. Her business and legal successes surely built her a reputation for shrewdness and diplomacy; on his deathbed Leonard Calvert ordered Thomas Greene would be governor and Margaret Brent to serve as his executor, giving the instructions that Brent should “take all, [and] pay all.”
Fallout from the English civil war led to Protestant attacks in Maryland. In 1645, the Protestant Richard Ingle took St. Mary’s City, sent the local Jesuit priests and Giles Brent to England in chains, and destroyed Catholic property. Calvert had fled to Virginia and gathered an army to regain his control of Maryland. At the time of his death, that army had not been paid, and Calvert’s estates provided insufficient funds to cover those costs. Brent asked the Provincial Court to recognize her as Leonard Calvert’s executor and to act as his attorney until Lord Baltimore made other arrangements; on January 3, 1648, the court granted her that right (Loker, Brigands, 20). She used her authority as Leonard Calvert’s attorney to sell his cattle to pay debts, and to buy corn to feed the soldiers. By doing so, she avoided the mutiny of Calvert’s army and saved Maryland as a separate colony and a haven for religious freedom.
While Brent was clearing up Leonard Calvert’s affairs, she came before the meeting of the Maryland Assembly on January 21, 1648 in St. John’s and asked for two votes (“vote and voyce”): one as a landowner, and one as Lord Baltimore’s attorney. Maryland’s governor denied she should have any vote in the house, and she left, saying that she “protested against all proceedings in this present Assembly, unless she may be present and have vote as aforesaid” (Andrews, History, 88). A vote might have mitigated her actions to settle Leonard Calvert’s estate.
Lord Baltimore was livid that Brent sold the cattle, despite her authority to do so. He wrote a letter complaining of her actions to the General Assembly, and the Assembly attempted to appease him with the statement,
“…we do Verily Believe and in Conscience report that it was better for the colony’s safety at that time in her hands then in any mans else in the whole Province after your Brothers death for the Soldiers would never have treated any other with the Civility and respect and through they were even ready at times to run into mutiny yet she still pacified them till at the last things were brought to that strait that she must be admitted and declared your Lordships Attorney….” (Andrews, History, 89).
It seems unlikely the Assembly’s response made a difference to his feelings. In 1650, Brent moved to northern Virginia with her family, presumably to be out of the reach of “Ld Baltemore’s disaffections to me and the Instruccones he Sends agt us”. Once there she established a plantation which she named “Peace”, and she lived in Virginia until her death. There’s a bas-relief plaque in historic St. Mary’s City today, depicting her request for the vote in the Assembly.
Aleck Loker. Brigands, Barristers and Brents: Margaret Brent, Attorney, Adventurer, and Suffragist. Williamsburg, VA: Solitude Press, 2006.
Andrews, Matthew Page. A History of Maryland: Province and State. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1929.