America's First Feminist
Margaret Brent was born in 1601 in Gloucester, England. She was one of thirteen children born to Richard Brent, Lord of Admington and Stoke, and his wife, Elizabeth Reed, the daughter of Edward Reed, Lord of Tusburie and Witten, all of Gloucester.
The history of the Brent family of Stoke, can be traced to Ode Brent, a knight in the year 1066. Margaret's mother's family claims a descent to William the Conqueror.
Being excited at the resources of the new world, Margaret, along with her sister Mary and two brothers Giles and Fulke, set sail on the ship Charity from Plymouth England in early October 1638. They decided to travel to Maryland, arriving at dawn on November 22, 1638. As they entered the Potomac River, they traveled upriver, settling in St. Mary's City. Once in Maryland, their family political affiliations afforded them favors giving them the ability to obtain large land grants and high offices. Margaret's brother Giles had been to Jamestown, Virginia previously, and soon became one of Governor Leonard Calvert's trusted assistants.
Margaret, being a very strong-willed independent person went directly to Governor Leonard Calvert equipped with letters from Lord Baltimore which claimed large land portions and privileges for the Brent sisters. These land portions were as large as those granted to the first arrivals at St. Mary's City. Because the Brent's brought with them five men and four maid servants, they were entitled to eight hundred acres of land, under the rule of colonization inducements offered to women. However, because of the letters from Lord Baltimore, they were granted parcels much larger than the entitled eight hundred acres.
On October 4, 1639, Margaret obtained from the Assembly a patent for seventy and one-half acres in St. Mary's City, that she called, "Sister's Freehold." This was the first grant recorded at St. Mary's City and Margaret was the first woman of Maryland to hold land in her own right. In later years she acquired a tract of 1,000 acres of land, and in time, because of her help in transporting men and women, she accumulated even more.
Margaret Brent was a very forceful and fearless woman. When Governor Calvert returned to Maryland from Virginia in 1646, she helped him in suppressing the rebellion by William Claiborne, by gathering an armed group of volunteers to join in with Calvert.
Governor Calvert had much confidence and faith in Margaret's abilities, and proved this further by his appointing her his executrix in 1647. Additionally, the Provincial court appointed her Lord Baltimore's attorney, a position under which they empowered her to collect rents and handle both his estates. In this position as an attorney, Margaret entered more law suits than any other in the colony, and successfully prosecuted a claim involving seven thousand pounds of tobacco against the Calverts. In 1647, upon the death of Governor Leonard Calvert, Thomas Greene succeeded Calvert as governor, and served in this capacity until 1649. When Governor Greene left office in 1649, William Stone succeeded Greene, however, at times in 1649, upon Stone's absence, Stone appointed Greene as acting governor.
Because of her many responsibilities, Margaret appealed to the Assembly on January 21, 1648 for a voice in their counsels, and for two votes in their Assembly proceedings. One vote was for herself as a landowner, and the second as attorney for Lord Baltimore. This request was more than two hundred fifty years before women were given the right to vote in the United States. Governor Thomas Greene considered her request, but refused her the right to vote. His decision was written as follows:
"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."
Cecil Calvert, second Lord Baltimore, upon learning that Margaret Brent had requested the right to vote as well as a seat in the Maryland legislature, was displeased at best. As England was so far away, by the time news reached there from Maryland, and other parts of the New World, it was, at times, erroneous. From the information conveyed to him, Cecil Calvert construed her actions to be those that opposed him, and turned against her. On August 15, 1648, Cecil Calvert wrote a letter to Margaret Brent, which included accusations, that although untrue, Margaret could not forgive. This letter included, in part, the following:
"We, most painfully learn of your scandalous, even avaricious conduct there in your presumptuous management of our own affairs by no other direction than that of a sick and suffering man. Our late lamented good brother on his deathbed was so tormented by pain and suffering that, in a delirium, he bestowed honors upon you which your modesty does not reject and your greed grasps tenaciously. The mortification brought upon our Province and our family by your ambitious brother's degrading union in matrimony with one of the savages there... (referring to her brother Giles's marriage to an Indian girl). We are now aware that for six years past you have appeared for the recovery of presumed debts due you and those persons represented by you...that as a result, we are now informed, you have mostly taken up land in lieu of the regular currency, so that there is grave danger that the family of Brent will or may have now the title to more of Maryland than the rightful Proprietary. Further, we are inflicted by your indelicacy in demanding a voice and vote in our Assembly there on our behalf. This mortification might well be brought upon us by the spouse of a fishmonger; that one of your high birth should so publicly forget her position gives us embarrassment and great vexation of spirit. We are persuaded the retirement of all the Brent's from our Province would be conducive to domestic peace therein. We forward this day a commission to our well-affected friend, William Stone, Esq., empowering him to act as our Lieutenant General and attorney in Maryland."
Cecil Calvert continued in his letter to say further that this friend, William Stone, had convinced "five hundred souls of British and Irish decent" to settle in Maryland, but not for land for himself, but in essence for the good of Maryland. This further inferred that all actions taken by Margaret were for personal gain, and not for the benefit of Maryland. As it turned out, these five hundred souls that Stone brought to Maryland were all Puritans from Virginia. Eventually, they brought about a state of civil war, in which Governor Stone was captured, jailed, and threatened with execution.
In Margaret's defense upon receiving her letter from Lord Baltimore, the General Assembly with Governor Stone wrote a reply to Lord Baltimore, dated April 21, 1649. It included the following on her behalf:
"As for your bitter invective against Mistress Brent for her undertaking and meddling with your Lordship's estate, here we do verily believe and in conscience report, that it was better for the colony's safety at that time, in her hands, than in any man's else in the whole Province after your brother's death. For the soldier's would never have treated any other with that civility and respect. They were even ready at several times to run into mutiny yet still she pacified them, till at last, things were brought to that strait that she must be admitted and declared your Lordship's attorney by an Order of Court, or else all must go to ruin again. The Mistress Brent with our full concurrence did deputize Mr. Thomas Copely, who is well respected here, to receive rents, else no one might receive them and they remain a loss to you. Mistress Brent to well-affected soldiers has given a few of your cattle in lieu of wages, not above eleven or twelve cows. Your Lordship may well remember these soldiers had ventured their lives and fortunes in the defense, recovery and preservation of your Lordship's Province..."
Resentful of the decision not to permit her to vote, and in conjunction with the accusations from Calvert, Margaret left Maryland in 1650, and established a new home in Westmoreland County, Virginia that she called, "Peace." Earlier her brother, Giles had moved to Virginia, and one of her sisters, Anne, had married Governor Leonard Calvert. Anne died several years before Governor Calvert. Margaret, now owning vast estates in Maryland and Virginia, became very powerful. She was known as "lady of the manor," and held large feasts for her people.
Margaret Brent died in 1671. Although the exact month and day are unknown, she did make a will on December 26, 1663, that was admitted to probate on May 19, 1671.
Margaret Brent was considered a lady of queenly dignity, with extreme intelligence, and understanding sympathy and charm, who possessed progressive visions considerably beyond her day.
Copyright © John T. Marck. All Rights Reserved. This article and their accompanying pictures, photographs, and line art, may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author.