First Woman to Request the Vote
By Anne Adams
The fact that women vote today is completely accepted, but 350 years ago in colonial America it was very rare. Yet when Margaret Brent asked for not one but two votes in the 1647 Maryland colonial assembly she did not want to set a precedent for her gender but merely acquire what she considered economically necessary for herself and her community. Moreover, while she did not succeed in obtaining the votes she sought, the fact that she was in a position to request it – as a successful business professional in her own right –made her as unique as her request.
Margaret Brent was born about 1600 in England to a titled peer and his wife. The Brent family was wealthy, but also Catholic, and as such were likely to encounter political and social disfavor if they remained in England . When their fellow Catholics, the Calvert family, received royal approval to colonize the Maryland area of America as a refuge for other members of their faith, the Brents considered immigration to the new area. The head of the Calvert family, Cecil, the second Lord Baltimore, was well aware that to assure the success of his colony he would need to welcome non-Catholics, so to encourage them to settle he promised religious tolerance for all faiths. It was an unusual, even experiential situation. Since Cecil remained in England , he appointed his brother Leonard Calvert to be the governor of the new colony.
When Margaret Brent, with two brothers and a sister, arrived in 1638 the brothers settled in one area, and Mary and Margaret setup a separate home. Because they had brought a great number of servants, officials had granted the sisters a great deal of land and Margaret soon became a successful businesswoman. She lent money to new arrivals, imported and traded servants and even appeared in local courts to collect debts. Actually such business activity by a woman was not unprecedented or illegal, but what was unique was that Margaret could only do it because she was single and never married. For at that time a married woman lost control of her property to her husband so as long as she and her sister remained single Margaret could direct her own property interests. Also, the fact that she remained single was unusual since even young girls were nudged into marriage because wives were so important to the colony.
The English Civil War spread to Maryland when in 1645 a Protestant-led revolt led to colonial Governor Leonard Calvert fleeing to nearby Virginia . The colony was in temporary disorder, but when Calvert returned a year later with hired soldiers he defeated the Protestant rebels. However, Calvert soon fell ill and died, but not before he had appointed another governor, and Margaret as executrix, a position that meant she would be in charge of paying his debts and settling his estate. His instructions were clear: “To take all and pay all.” While other women had been executrixes they were usually widows, but Margaret was not Calvert’s wife, and in fact was not married at all. Her decisions would eventually affect the entire colony and its survival.
The soldiers hired by Calvert to put down the revolt were now clamoring for back pay, there were food shortages, and there was the very real danger that the dissatisfied soldiers could disrupt the public safety. Margaret had used Calvert’s money to cover his debts but lacked the funds to pay the soldiers so she took an unusual step. Leonard Calvert had been serving as attorney for his brother Cecil, the second Lord Baltimore who had remained in England and Margaret asked that the Provincial Court appoint her Lord Baltimore’s attorney-in-fact so she could sell more assets to raise the money to pay the soldiers.
On January 21, 1748 Margaret appeared before the colonial Assembly and asked for two votes – one for herself since she was a landowner, and the other because she was Lord Baltimore’s attorney. Historians have speculated that she wasn’t seeking the vote for women in general but just for this specific situation. As historian Dr. Lois Green Carr put it: “She knew well that many members of the assembly were more interested in preserving their estates than in the welfare of Lord Baltimore’s colony and would refuse to levy a tax to pay the soldiers. She must have hoped, by her request for the vote, to at least cover herself when she sold Lord Baltimore’s cattle without his knowledge and consent. She may even have hoped to persuade the men present to contribute a share that would make such an act unnecessary.” However, the Assembly refused her request and Margaret was forced to act on her own.
Under her authority as Lord Baltimore’s attorney, she sold some of his cattle and paid the soldiers, Yet when Lord Baltimore, who was did not understand the situation because he was not on the scene, protested her actions the Assembly wrote a letter of support: “We do Verily Believe and in Conscience report that it was better for the Collonys (sic) safety at that time in her hands than in any mans (sic) 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.”
But Baltimore did not share their sentiments and his opposition plus the appointment of a Protestant governor, created an unfavorable atmosphere for the Brents. They moved to Virginia , established new settlements, and Margaret acquired a new plantation she named “Peace.” There she died in 1671.
While history remembers Margaret Brent as the first woman to request the right to vote, her reasons were not necessarily for the promotion of her gender, but for the benefit of the survival of her homeland. She was unique not just for the request for the vote but for taking such an active role in the business and governmental survival of Maryland .
A native of Kansas City , Missouri , Anne grew up in northwestern Ohio , and holds degrees in history: a BA from Wilmington College , Wilmington , Ohio (1967), and a MA from Central Missouri State University , Warrensburg , Missouri (1968). A freelance writer since the early 1970s, she has published in Christian and secular publications, has taught history on the junior college level, and has spoken at national and local writers’ conferences. Her book “Brittany, Child of Joy”, an account of her severely retarded daughter, was issued by Broadman Press in 1987. She also publishes an encouragement newsletter “Rainbows Along the Way.”