Margaret Brent: America's First Suffragette

Introduction

Margaret BrentOn January 21, 1648, Margaret Brent appeared before the assembly and requested two votes. She asked for one for herself as a landowner and one as Lord Baltimore's attorney. Who was this woman, the first female in the New World to request the right to vote?

Accompanied by two brothers and a sister, Margaret Brent arrived in St. Mary's City on November 22, 1638. She proceeded to claim a land grant, and engaged in numerous business ventures, trading in tobacco, indentured servants, and land. She appeared in court to sue for debts and to protect her interests, and often acted for her brothers as well. Margaret Brent was named with Governor Leonard Calvert as joint guardian for Mary Kittamaquund, daughter of the chief of the Piscataways. Ten years after her arrival, Margaret Brent was prominent as a businesswoman and landowner.

Existence in 17th-century Maryland was precarious. Threatened by disease, life was hard and often short. Under such conditions, some women were forced to step out of the sheltered sphere they had inhabited back in England. Margaret Brent was not the only woman to claim land in her own right or to pursue her own interests in court. However, she chose to do so; she was not forced. Her continuing unmarried state was unusual in a settlement where the male/female ratio was about six to one.

Born around 1601, Margaret Brent was approximately thirty-seven years old when she arrived in Maryland. Little is known about the first half of her life. She was one of thirteen children born to Richard and Elizabeth Brent. The Brents were landed Catholic gentry living in Gloucestershire. Daughters of such families usually lived quietly at home under the domination of their fathers until they married, at which time control of their lives and their fortunes was transferred to their husbands. In light of her later life, it is hard to imagine Margaret Brent indulging in needlework and other maidenly pastimes for thirty-seven years. She seems to have had some education. Her decision to emigrate to Maryland was not so unique; what was unusual was her coming as head of her own household and not as an appendage of her brothers. Her brothers emigrated to seek opportunities in business and public affairs not available to them in England as Catholics and younger sons; Margaret may have emigrated to escape the inherent constraints of her life in England.

Fifteen years after the first settlers arrived, the Maryland settlement faced a severe crisis. In 1645, the civil war raging in England between Charles I and Parliament spilled over into Maryland. Richard Ingle, a Protestant and a partisan of the English Parliament, invaded St. Mary's City, destroyed the property of Catholic settlers, and took the Jesuit priests and Margaret's brother Giles back to England in chains. Governor Leonard Calvert and other settlers fled to Virginia, and the population of the colony dropped drastically. Late in 1646, the Governor returned with soldiers to reestablish Calvert control. However, Governor Leonard Calvert died in 1647 with his own and Maryland's affairs still in turmoil. From his deathbed, exhorting her to "Take all and pay all," he appointed Margaret Brent his executor, a testimony to his faith in her abilities.

Margaret's decisive actions in such troubled times ensured the survival of the settlement. The most pressing problem was paying Leonard Calvert's soldiers, who were on the verge of a mutiny. Margaret averted that disaster by having the assembly transfer to her Leonard Calvert's power of attorney for his brother Lord Baltimore. Because Leonard Calvert's estate was not sufficient, she sold some of Lord Baltimore's cattle to pay the soldiers. Her most famous action, requesting two votes in the assembly, occurred while she was trying to resolve the Calvert affairs.

Ultimately, Margaret's actions in averting disaster were commended by the assembly to Lord Baltimore, who could not see beyond the loss of his cattle. The Brents never regained his favor and relocated to Virginia by 1651, where Margaret died around 1671.

Margaret Brent remains an enigma. Her life was filled with actions remarkable and unusual for a woman of the 17th century. Documents record at least a part of what she did; we can only conjecture why, just as we can only imagine what she looked like.  No contemporary images of her survive.

Source:  Maryland State Archives, 1997 (rev. 1998) 

National History Standards

Materials compiled in this document can be used by educators to fulfill the following National History Standards for Grades K-4:

Topic 2: The History of Students’ Own State or Region 

STANDARD 3: The people, events, problems, and ideas that created the history of their state.

Standard 3D: The student understands the interactions among all these groups throughout the history of his or her state. 

3-4: List in chronological order the major historical events that are part of the state’s history. [Establish temporal order] 
3-4: Analyze the significance of major events in the state’s history, their impact on people then and now, and their relationship to the history of the nation. [Analyze cause-and-effect relationships]
3-4: Identify historical problems or events in the state and analyze the way they were solved and/or the ways that they continue to be addressed. [Identify issues and problems in the past] 

Standard 3E: The student understands the ideas that were significant in the development of the state and that helped to forge its unique identity. 

K-3: Analyze how the ideas of significant people affected the history of their state. [Assess the importance of the individual in history] 

Primary Resources

  1. DESCRIPTION: Conjectural painting, Margaret Brent arguing for the right to vote before the General Assembly. 
    ARTIST: Louis Glanzman
    CREDIT: Image courtesy of the National Geographic Society 
    REPOSITORY: Maryland Commission on Artistic Property, MSA SC 1545-0789 

  2. DESCRIPTION: Conjectural drawing, "Margaret Brent" 
    ARTIST:  Edwin Tunis
    DATE CREATED:  ca. 1934
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 1480

  3. DESCRIPTION: Margaret Brent's request for vote and "voyce" in the Maryland Assembly 
    SOURCE: GOVERNOR AND COUNCIL (Proceedings), 1647-1651, liber A, folio 130, MSA S1701-4
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  4. DESCRIPTION: Transcription of Margaret Brent's request for vote and "voyce" in the Maryland Assembly
    SOURCE: Archives of Maryland vol. 1, Proceedings of the General Assembly, Jan. 1637/8-Sept. 1664, p.215.
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  5. DESCRIPTION: Deposition Regarding Leonard Calvert's Last Wishes, naming Margaret Brent as his Executrix to "Take all, & pay all"
    SOURCE: GOVERNOR AND COUNCIL (Proceedings), 1647-1651, liber A, folio 64, MSA S-1071-4
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  6. DESCRIPTION: Transcription of Assembly Letter Praising Margaret Brent
    SOURCE: Archives of Maryland, Proceedings of the General Assembly, Jan. 1637/8-Sept. 1664, p.239, SPECIAL COLLECTIONS (Archives of Maryland Collection) MSA SC 2908; Original record: GENERAL ASSEMBLY (Upper House) Liber M.C., folio 342, MSA S977-1, 2/20/4/42)
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  7. DESCRIPTION: Margaret Brent's sale of Lord Baltimore's cattle to pay a soldier
    DATE: 1648
    SOURCE: GOVERNOR AND COUNCIL (Proceedings) 1647-1651, liber A, folio 213, MSA S1071-4
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

Additional Media Resources

Notes on Margaret Brent, © Dr. Lois Green Carr, Historic St. Mary's City Commission

Secondary Resources

Brugger, Robert. "From Province to Colony (1634-1689)." In Maryland: A Middle Temperament. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press in association with the Maryland Historical Society, 1988.

Çinlar, Nuran. "'Came Mistress Margaret Brent': Political Representation, Power, and Authority in Early Maryland." Maryland Historical Magazine (Winter 2004): 405-427.

Henretta, James. "Margaret Brent: A Woman of Property" REPRINTED FROM James A. Henretta, Elliot Brownlee, David Brody, Susan Ware, and Marilynn Johnson, America's History, Third Edition, Worth Publishers Inc., 1997 Copyright: Worth Publishers Inc.

Jensen, Ann. "'Is This Justice?': A Woman's Plea in Colonial Maryland Puts Margaret Brent Ahead of Her Time." Annapolitan. (June, 1990): 47-49.

Loker, Aleck. "BARRISTERS, BRIGANDS, AND BRENTS: Margaret Brent: Attorney, Adventurer, and America's First Suffragette"  A Briefe Relation Historic St. Mary's City Foundation and Friends Newsletter, Spring 1999.

"Notes on 'Colonial Women of Maryland.'" Maryland Magazine 2: 379.

Masson, Margaret W. "Margaret Brent, c1601-c1671: Lawyer, Landholder-Entrepreneur." Notable Maryland Women. Ed: Winifred G. Helmes.  Cambridge, MD: Tidewater Publishers, 1977.

Menard, Russell R. "From Servant to Freeholder: Status Mobility and Property Accumulation in Seventeenth-Century Maryland" William and Mary Quarterly (Jan., 1973): 37-64. 

Spruill, Julia Cherry. "Mistress Margaret Brent, Spinster." Maryland Historical Magazine (December, 1934): 259-269. Reprinted in Maryland Historical Magazine (Spring 2005): 48-55.

Associated Heritage and Preservation Organizations

Historic St. Mary's City
18751 Hogaboom Lane
St. Mary's City, MD 20686
St. Clement's Island Potomac River Museum
38370 Point Breeze Road
Colton Point, MD 20626
Phone: (301) 769-2222

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Credits

Teaching American History in Maryland is a collaborative partnership of the Maryland State Archives and the Center for History Education (CHE), University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), and the following sponsoring school systems: Anne Arundel County Public Schools, Baltimore City Public School System, Baltimore County Public Schools, and Howard County Public Schools.

Other program partners include the Martha Ross Center for Oral History, Maryland Historical Society, State Library Resource Center/Enoch Pratt Free Library, with assistance from the National Archives and Records Administration and the Library of Congress. The program is funded through grants from the U.S. Department of Education.

This document packet was researched and developed by Nancy Bramucci.

 

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