By Gayle Converse and Pat Miller
Margaret Brent, a woman with strong ties to the geographic region that would become Alexandria, asked for the right to vote almost 400 years before the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which granted enfranchisement to women, was ratified in 1920.
One of 13 children, Margaret Brent was born to Catholic gentry in Gloucestershire, England in 1601 – a time when women did not receive formal education and were expected to remain under the control of their husbands or fathers. Brent’s father tutored Margaret in the law.
According to the Maryland State Archives, Brent and three of her siblings emigrated to the newly chartered Roman Catholic colony of Maryland and arrived in its first colonial capitol, St. Mary’s City, on Nov. 22, 1638.
Brent was unmarried at 37 years old, and she quickly broke from colonial norms: Instead of listing herself as an “appendage to her brothers,” Brent preferred to settle in the New World as head of her household. A woman could own and supervise property – as long as she remained single. In a colonial population featuring a male to female ratio of six to one, Brent never married.
She often successfully represented herself and her brothers in court. She won the admiration of Maryland Governor Leonard Calvert, who died in 1647 after naming Brent executrix of his estate. Brent claimed a land grant for 700 acres north of Great Hunting Creek, which included present day Jones Point and much of Alexandria.
Although Brent never lived in Alexandria, she grew tobacco and traded in land and servants in the city. The words on a stone and bronze maker erected at Jones Point Park by the Mount Vernon Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution state that “Mistress Margaret Brent” became the “first private owner of the rectangular tract of land that became the nucleus of Alexandria.”
Brent became so well-known and respected, she was appointed with Leonard Calvert as joint guardian for Mary Kittamaquund, daughter of the chief of the Piscataway Native American nation.
On Jan. 21, 1648, as the all-male Maryland Assembly met in St. Mary’s City, Brent made her way into the chamber and demanded the right to two votes and “voyce”– for herself as a landowner and for herself as the late Calvert’s chosen attorney. Brent was denied her votes.
The Assembly’s decision, combined with fallout from Brent’s business acumen that had riled the late Governor’s brother, prompted Brent and her sister to leave Maryland. The pair moved to join their brother, Giles, near what is now Stafford, Virginia in 1651. Brent was 70 years old when she died at her Virginia home in 1671.
In addition to several plaques in Alexandria, many locations in both Virginia and Maryland bear Brent’s name, including an elementary school in Stafford, an elementary school in Baltimore, a middle school in Mechanicsville, Maryland and conference rooms at the University of Maryland.
An historic marker in St. Mary’s City honors Brent’s voting rights advocacy: “Following the example of the ‘Army of the Hudson,’ whose members marched over 200 miles from New York to Washington in early 1913 to gain support for women’s suffrage, in the summer of 1915 Maryland suffragists journeyed by covered wagon from Baltimore to Saint Mary’s City, home of suffrage icon Margaret Brent.”
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice who died Friday at age 87, stated in 1993:
“Awards were made in the name of Margaret Brent, a great lady of the mid-1600s, celebrated as the first woman lawyer in America. Her position as a woman, yet possessor of power, so confused her contemporaries that she was sometimes named in court records, not as Mistress Margaret Brent, but as Gentleman Margaret Brent.”
The writers are founders of Alexandria Celebrates Women, a nonprofit that is commemorating the centennial of women’s suffrage and highlighting influential women throughout the city’s history. Contact them at [email protected].