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One Maryland woman’s push for voting rights in the 1600s | COMMENTARY

In the summer of 1920, the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, was ratified.
In the summer of 1920, the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, was ratified. (Everett Historical // Shutterstock)

As this year marks the 386th anniversary of the founding of Maryland, as well as the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote, perhaps we should remember one of our state’s most illustrious yet lesser-known pioneers: Margaret Brent, the first woman to ask for the vote (two votes, actually) in the Maryland General Assembly.

The all-male assembly — no doubt affronted by such female boldness — turned her down. Undaunted, Brent did not give up and was to achieve successes unimaginable for a female in 1600s colonial America.

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Margaret Brent was born in Gloucester, England, in 1601, one of 13 children and six daughters of Richard Brent and Elizabeth Reed Brent, wealthy (and secret) Catholics in Protestant England, with connections to the Calverts, who were the proprietors of Maryland by authority of both King James and King Charles.

Richard Brent’s estate was entailed to his eldest son, leaving the other 12 children to fend for themselves. Consequently, Margaret, her sister Mary, and brothers Giles and Fulke decided to seek their fortune and religious freedom in the New World.

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The four siblings arrived in St. Mary’s City in Southern Maryland on November 22, 1638. (Giles later settled in Kent County and Fulke returned to England.) Their Calvert connection proved helpful when the second Lord Baltimore, Cecil Calvert, gave the sisters a 2,000-acre grant of land in and around St. Mary’s City. Early on, Margaret Brent demonstrated that she was a gifted businesswoman by, for example, increasing her original acreage to the point where she was a major landowner; lending money (to be paid back with interest) to new immigrants; and appearing as an advocate in the court of common law on behalf of herself and others — the first woman in the colonies to do so.

Neither Brent nor her sister Mary married at a time when men outnumbered women six to one. Perhaps this was a blessing in disguise because of a law prohibiting married women from owning or managing property or making contracts. Any property a woman took into her marriage became the property of her husband, who could dispose of it as he wished.

In 1642, civil war broke out in England and spread to the colonies. Richard Ingle, a ship’s captain acting on behalf of the English Puritans, invaded Catholic Maryland, destroyed much of the colony, and forced Governor Leonard Calvert to flee to Virginia. A year later Calvert returned to liberate St. Mary’s City and Kent Island with help from Virginia soldiers he had recruited.

In 1647, Governor Calvert became gravely ill, and on his deathbed he appointed Margaret Brent as executor of his will, saying …”take all and pay all.” Brent did pay most of his debts, but there was no money left to pay the Virginia soldiers who had helped quell the Ingle rebellion. The soldiers threatened mutiny unless they were paid, so Brent went before the Maryland Provincial Court and asked to be named attorney for Cecil Calvert (who was in England) in place of his now-deceased brother Leonard. The assembly granted her request, after which Brent sold some of Cecil Calvert’s property to pay the soldiers. This action did not sit well with Calvert, who wrote to the assembly objecting to Brent’s actions and chastising them for granting her petition to represent him.

The assembly continued to support Brent, however, responding to Calvert by writing, in part: “We do Verily Believe and in Conscience report that it was better for the Collonys safety at that time in her hands than in any mans else in the whole province …. She rather deserved favour and thanks from your Honour for her so much Concurring to the publick safety then to be justly liable to … bitter invectives.”

Emboldened by her newfound authority, Brent took an amazing step for a woman at the time on January 21, 1648, when she petitioned the Maryland General Assembly to grant her two votes: one as the attorney for Lord Baltimore, Cecil Calvert, and another as a successful landowner. Her petition was denied, but it is noteworthy because it was the first time a woman had requested voting privileges in a colonial general assembly.

Lord Baltimore remained intransigent in his disapproval of and hostility toward Brent, and so in 1649, Brent and siblings Mary and Giles (also out of favor) sold their Maryland property and moved to Virginia. Brent and Mary bought a large tract of land they named “Peace.” Giles and his wife Mary (daughter of a Piscataway chief) moved to Virginia’s Northern Neck in 1650.

Brent was a true pioneer in taking the first step in securing for women the right to vote on important issues that would affect them — just as men did. Sadly, it took 272 years to achieve that goal when, on August 18, 1920, the 19th amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote was ratified.

Trish Byrnes (mpbyrnes8@gmail.com) is a retired editor and writer living in Towson.

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