THOUGH many Marylanders have never heard of her, "Mistress Margaret Brent, Spinster" (circa 1600-1670) was the first woman lawyer in America and a fine subject to examine during Women's History Month.
She arrived from England in 1638, accompanied by a sister, two brothers and servants. The high-born Catholic Brents received land from Lord Baltimore (Cecilius Calvert), and the Brent sisters took a 70-acre plot in St. Mary's City, appropriately calling it "Sisters Freehold." (Though accompanied by their brothers, they were economically independent agents and remained so, never marrying.)
Enterprising and financially clever, Margaret Brent prospered, acquiring livestock and much more land. According to historian Mary Beth Norton, single women of means in the Chesapeake colonies fared better than their New England sisters, because the founding principles of these colonies permitted greater independence to single women.
Brent's fame grew also because she was legally astute, persevering in court to recover debts owed her; she held power of attorney for others also, primarily women. In court records for 1642 to 1650, she is named 134 times, mostly as plaintiff, invariably winning her suits.
Her success in business and court were precursory to the political mark she would make. The most remarkable part of her story took place in 1647 and 1648, beginning at the bedside of the dying Gov. Leonard Calvert, brother to Lord Baltimore. With Brent and others present, he named her his sole executor, saying only, "Take all and pay all." It was highly unusual for women to administer the estates of men who weren't their husbands, though landowners regularly represented themselves in court; Calvert's extraordinary request was evidence that he and others held her in high regard.
But Calvert had more debts than money. Among Calvert's creditors was a contingent of Virginia soldiers he had employed to quell Maryland's Protestant revolt. The 17th century was a time of religious civil war in England, and not surprisingly, events in England reverberated in Catholic Maryland. Those who lived through this period called it "the plundering time."
Protestant rebels sacked the colony of food and other possessions before being routed by those Virginia soldiers now demanding their pay and threatening mutiny in Maryland. When he hired them, Calvert had pledged as security his own estate as well as Lord Baltimore's. So Brent asked the Maryland Assembly for power of attorney over Lord Baltimore's property, too. The Assembly granted her wish, and the soldiers were pacified.
Historians speculate about Brent's intentions in asking for power of attorney over the second property, just as they speculate about the reasons for the invectives Lord Baltimore heaped upon her when he discovered it a year later. Yet, the Maryland Assembly not only defended but praised Brent, informing his lordship that "the Colony was safer in her hands than any man's in the Province, and she rather deserves favor and thanks for her so much concerning [herself] for the public safety."
Brent's success in saving the colony would be followed by a stunning defeat, however. Because she was both a freeholder and Lord Baltimore's attorney, she decided to ask for the right to vote as a member of the Assembly, a right she would have had if she were a man.
Brent even asked for two votes -- one to represent her own interests and one to represent Lord Baltimore's ("Came Mistress Margaret Brent and requested to have vote in the house for herself and voyce also as his Lordship's Attorney").
A major rejection
Some say that in asking this, she was the first woman to demand the right to vote. The moment was rife with political intrigue as well as patriarchal power, and her request was refused outright. Not one to cower, she objected strongly ("this said Mistress Brent protested against all proceedings in this present Assembly, unless she may be present, and have vote as aforesaid"). But to no avail.
After the Assembly refused her the vote, and after Lord Baltimore's reprimand, she abandoned Maryland for Virginia, naming her home "Peace" understandable for one who had lived through "the plundering time" and more.
She would never know that, though she had many successes in life, it was because of her failure to achieve civic rights that history would record "Margaret Brent, Spinster," as one of our founding mothers.
Jo-Ann Pilardi is director of women's studies and a professor of philosophy and women's studies at Towson University.
Pub Date: 3/05/98