Have you ever thought about what it would be like to be the first at something? Standing up for what you believe no matter the ridicule or hatred can be scary. So intimidating that many of us either turn away or simply don’t see that opportunity when it arises. Women have stood up throughout history. They’ve taken walked a lonely path sometimes. A path sometimes strewn with ridicule, hate, imprisonment, and death. Fellow women, if you’d been alive in the 1600s would you have been the first to stand up and demand the right to vote?
Who Was Margaret Brent?
Thirty-seven-year-old Margaret Brent, her sister and two brothers arrived at St. Mary’s, Maryland on November 22, 1638. They came to the Colonies to improve their fortune since the family’s wealth all went to their elder brother, the firstborn son.
A wealthy Catholic English family, the Brents had close ties with the Calverts, the proprietors of Maryland. Governor Calvert gave Margaret and each of her siblings a large land grant. The law allowed a single woman to own and manage property. She could make contracts and collect debts in a court of law. A married woman lost the power to make contracts, collect debts, or own and manage property. Her husband took control of all she owned. The governor also granted her the headrights to the servants she brought with her.
Life in the Colony
Margaret never married. She learned to be a capable businesswoman. She earned money by granting loans to recent immigrants. And ended up in court more than once when she needed help with debt collection and other business arrangements. She participated in 124 cases in eight years. And she won every case.
England’s civil war broke out in 1642. And in 1645, a ship of Protestants raided the colony of Maryland. They captured Margaret’s brother and took him back to England. Governor Calvert fled to Virginia. He returned a year later with a group of hired soldiers and drove the raiders out. However, only 100 colonists remained in Maryland.
A Change of Fortune
Calvert became ill a short while later. He appointed a replacement governor and named Margaret as his executrix. As executrix, she would pay off his debts and dispose of his estate.
After his death, she cashed out his estate. But, after paying his debts, Calvert’s estate didn’t have enough money to pay the soldiers he’d hired. The soldiers threatened to mutiny. Margaret knew this threatened the entire colony. But she also knew something else.
Calvert’s brother, the second Lord Baltimore, had always managed his proprietorship from England. He appointed his brother, Calvert, as governor and had him manage his lands. So, Margaret went to the Provincial Court and asked to be appointed Lord Baltimore’s attorney-in-fact. And they did.
A Voice and Two Votes
Then, as Lord Baltimore’s representative, Margaret attended the all-male provincial assembly. There she requested a voice in the assembly. She also requested two votes: one as Lord Baltimore’s attorney and one vote for herself. The Governor refused her request. So she sold off some of Lord Baltimore’s cows and some of his property. She paid off the soldiers and saved the colony from destruction.
Lord Baltimore didn’t like that she’d sold his property and sent a letter of protest to the assembly. The assembly defended her. They said “it was better for the Colony’s safety at that time in her hands than in any man’s … for the soldiers would never have treated any others with that civility and respect …”
A Move to Peace
Lord Baltimore and the Governor remained hostile to the Brents. So Margaret, her sister, and her brother and his family moved to Chopawamsic Island in the Potomac River in 1649.
She and her sister lived on a plantation named “Peace” for the rest of their lives.
Margaret Brent’s (1601-1671) exact dates of her birth and death are unknown. British raiders burned the Brent estates during the American Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. And Union soldiers vandalized the family graveyard during the Civil War. Historians documented the remaining gravestones and uncovered letters and legal documents and preserved her story.
Remembering Margaret Brent
Today, Maryland acknowledges Margaret Brent as a “founding mother.” The Historic St. Mary’s has a museum that features her. Buildings on Maryland colleges and public schools are named after her. And the American Bar Association recognizes Margaret Brent as America’s first woman attorney with their annual Margaret Brent Award for “up to five outstanding women lawyers who have achieved professional excellence and paved the way for other women in the legal profession.”
While Margaret Brent didn’t ask for the vote for all women, she was the first woman to stand up and demand a vote. She stood up when being a single woman was an extraordinary thing. When laws and votes and most businesses were overwhelmingly male occupations. I admire her for that. As I admire the Baroness von Suttner, Patsy Takemoto Mink, and all the other women who stood first in their fields. Would you have been the first to stand up and demand a vote? I write about strong women, but I doubt I would have been strong enough to be first.