A harsh wind churns through the falling snow as an astute woman peers out the corner of a frosted foyer window. It must be nearly noon she thinks to herself, and shivers. She has waited a better part of the morning to speak before the assembly of Freemen. Alone, she takes an opportunity to adjust her cap and smooth the front of her petticoat. This is no time for an unkempt appearance. Finally, the doors of the meeting hall open and a stout man motions for her to come inside.
Embers blaze in the massive fireplace. Ahead, a group of men are seated at a long table. They remove their hats and stand as she approaches. She hands a tall gentleman a sheet of paper and, without a hint of fear in her voice, says, “I am a landowner and thy Lordship’s attorney. I hereby request a voice on this council.” And so, on January 21, 1648, Margaret Brent becomes the first woman in the New World to request the right to vote. Although her motion is denied, her spirit is never broken.
Born in Gloucester, England in 1601, Brent learned early on to speak her mind and be independent. One of thirteen children born to Irish Catholic parents, she dreamed of a land of religious freedom and economic opportunity. In early October 1638, 37-year-old Brent, along with several of her siblings, boarded the ship Charity and set sail from Plymouth, England. They settled in St. Mary’s City, Maryland, a fledgling colonial settlement founded in 1634 by Cecil Calvert, the second Lord Baltimore.
Colonial women were often sheltered behind their fathers or husbands, and seldom progressive or entrepreneurial. But shortly after arriving, Margaret Brent visited Governor Leonard Calvert’s office. She was met by one of his assistants, who insisted the Governor was unavailable. Brent furnished two letters from Lord Baltimore, and again demanded to see the Governor. She was forceful in her demeanor and would not be fooled. The assistant excused himself. When he returned, he informed Brent that the Governor would now see her.
Governor Calvert sat atop a joined stool at one side of a draw-leaf table. A mound of groomed, dark-brown curls flowed from his head to his shoulders where a stiff white collar entrapped his neck. His suit spoke of nobility – much different from the attire worn by the common folk. Yet his regal, authoritative presence doesn’t ruffle Brent.
Governor Calvert rose and greeted her, and after they exchanged common courtesies, she presented him with Lord Baltimore’s letters. According to Exploring Maryland’s Roots from Maryland Public Television, one explicitly stated, that the Brent sisters were to receive “as much Land in and about the Towne of St. Maries and elsewhere in that Province in as ample manner and with as large priviledges as any of the first adventurors have.” The Brents were Catholics of noble descent and distant cousins of the Calverts. This gave them special privileges, such as land grants, not afforded to later settlers.
There was no reason for the Governor not to follow through on his brother’s decree. Because the sisters have brought a number of servants with them, they were granted two thousand acres of land – substantially more than what was given to the first settlers.
A year after the journey from England, Brent secured a land patent from the Maryland Assembly for seventy and one-half acres in St. Mary’s City. She named the parcel, “Sister’s Freehold,” and became the first woman of the New World to hold a land grant. Not long after she would acquire another thousand acres on Kent Island, a large landmass in the middle of Chesapeake Bay.
But land ownership didn’t change the dynamics. Men outnumbered women six to one in the settlements, and most women looked to their husbands for financial support, according to Maryland State Archives. Brent was an enigma. She never married and took charge of her own financial affairs.
Brent also engaged in a number of business ventures including acting as a bank of sorts for new immigrants. When borrowers defaulted on their loans, she would appear in court to lawfully collect the debts. Occasionally, she would also represent the business matters of other colonists, particularly women. She was the first woman to practice law in a court of the colonies, and is often named as the first female attorney of the United States. Surviving records indicate that she pleaded at least 134 cases, mostly as a plaintiff, and won the bulk of her suits.
Life took a sharp turn for Brent and the colonists after civil war broke out in England in 1642. King Charles I and supporters of Parliament fought over how the government was being run. The political and religious turmoil soon spread to the English colony when a ship captained by Protestant Richard Ingle arrived at the Potomac. He immediately led a surprise attack on the Catholic settlers.
Governor Calvert fled to Jamestown, Virginia, leaving the settlement in complete disarray. A year passed before he returned with hired soldiers from Jamestown and defeated Ingle and his rebellious supporters. Whether karma or coincidence, the Governor fell ill within months of returning to the failing colony. His next acts would have a profound and lasting impact on Brent.
“Mistress Brent! Mistress Brent! Come quickly, please!” the Governor’s assistant shouted, as he feverously knocked on Brent’s door. “Thy Lordship is fading and has requested your immediate presence.”
Brent accompanied the assistant at once back to the Governor’s house. On his deathbed, with Brent and others nearby, Governor Calvert appointed Thomas Greene as his replacement and named Brent his sole executor. “Take all and pay all,” he said before the last breath left his body. The Governor grew to trust Brent, and she complied with his last wish.
To Brent’s surprise, the late Governor’s debt far exceeded his wealth. Once liquidated, there was not enough to cover all that needed to be paid, including the hired soldiers who helped secure the colony. Calvert had pledged his own estate along with his brother’s as collateral. Brent went before the Provincial Court and asked for power of attorney over Lord Baltimore’s property, which had been held by the late Governor. They granted her request.
It was at this time she appeared before the assembly and asked for two votes: one for herself as a landowner and one as Lord Baltimore’s representative in a possible effort to get a tax passed to pay the rebellious soldiers. Governor Thomas Greene considered the motion, but denied her the right to vote. Not one to bow down or simply walk away, she objected strongly. They could not be persuaded.
“Came Mistress Brent and requested to have vote in the House for herself and voice also; for that at the last Court 3rd January, it was ordered that the said Mrs. Brent was to be looked upon and received as his Lordship’s attorney. The Governor denied that the said Mistress Brent should have any vote in the House. And the Mistress Brent protested against all the proceedings in this present Assembly, unless she may be present and have vote as aforesaid,” read the transcribed notes.
Out of options, Brent took quick and decisive action to avert a disaster. Using her power of attorney and without permission, she sold some of Lord Baltimore’s cattle and paid the soldiers. While she most likely saved the colony from being ravaged, her actions angered Lord Baltimore back in London. He wrote a letter to the assembly expressing his disapproval. Although the Freemen came to her defense and commended her decision, Lord Baltimore remained enraged. The Brent family’s prominence in Maryland began to decline soon after.
In 1649, Brent and her brother Giles relocated to the Northern Neck of Virginia, in what was then Westmoreland County, where she purchased another large parcel of land. She named the property “Peace,” and lived there in tranquility until her death in 1671.
Although Brent planted the seed, 272 years passed before women were granted the right to vote with the August 18, 1920 ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It would be nearly a century before a woman became the first female Presidential nominee. Much like Brent, Hillary Clinton has had an extensive career in politics and law and has been an advocate for equality. Life and legacy came together in 2005 when the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession honored Clinton with the Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award.