Women in Law: First Woman to Appear in Court
Image: Margaret Brent before the Maryland Assembly
Margaret Brent ranks among the most prominent women figures in early colonial history. Hailed as an early feminist who advanced the legal rights of women, Brent was the first woman in the American colonies to appear before a court of the Common Law to claim land in her own right or to pursue her own interests in court. She was also a significant founding settler in the early histories of the colonies of Maryland and Virginia.
Margaret Brent was born around 1601 in Gloucestershire, England, into a wealthy Catholic family, one of thirteen children. She was an early American feminist, a major colonial landowner and executor for the governor of Maryland at a time of crisis in the Colony’s affairs.
After the death of Queen Mary in 1557, English Catholics endured almost continuous religious persecution. The increasing power of the militant Puritans during the 1630s promised new hardships for Catholics. The Brents were also in financial trouble. Margaret’s parents had done their best to promote their Catholic faith, and their successes had left their children in economic decline.
In migrating to Maryland, the Brent children hoped to use the modest funds provided by their parents and their ties with their powerful cousin Cecil Calvert, Lord Baltimore, to maintain their gentry status. Lord Baltimore intended Maryland to be a Catholic refuge and a profitable enterprise, which would require Protestant as well as Catholic settlers. To insure harmony in the Colony, he promised toleration of all Christian religions and political participation to all qualified settlers, without regard to religious preference.
Margaret Brent, her sister Mary, and their brothers Giles and Fulke left their castle in England to brave the hardships of the American Colony of Maryland, where they sought religious freedom and economic opportunity. They arrived in Maryland in 1638, carrying orders from Lord Baltimore that they were to be granted land on the terms he had offered to the first settlers in 1634. Giles settled on Kent Island and soon became a leader of the colony, and Fulke soon returned to England.
Margaret and Mary chose to live by themselves. As unmarried women, they could legally own and manage their own property. Shortly after settling in St. Mary’s City, the capital of the Colony, they amassed some of the largest real estate holdings in the New World. Because the Brents 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.
Margaret soon won the trust of Governor Leonard Calvert, Lord Baltimore’s brother, sharing with him the guardianship of Mary Kitomaquund, the daughter of a Piscataway chief, who was being educated by the English. Margaret was active in importing servants and lending capital to incoming settlers. She appeared for herself in court to collect her debts and handled her business affairs as a man would have.
An Attack on the Colony
Early in 1645, a Protestant ship captain, Richard Ingle, led a surprise attack on the Catholic settlers in Maryland. He raided the settlement on the St. Mary’s River in the name of the English Parliament, which was carrying on a civil war with Charles I. He burned the Catholic chapel, plundered the homes of Catholic settlers, and returned to England with Giles Brent and the Jesuit priests in chains. Governor Calvert fled to Virginia, and most of the Protestants left to become the first settlers in Virginia’s Northern Neck, just across the Potomac river.
A year later, the governor returned with a group of hired soldiers. Lacking hard currency to pay them, he had pledged his estate and that of his brother, Lord Baltimore, as security for their wages. Ingle and his supporters were soon defeated.
Unfortunately, Governor Calvert became ill and died shortly after his return. On his deathbed, he appointed Thomas Greene to replace him as governor and named Margaret Brent as executrix of his will, in charge of paying his debts and disposing of his estate. He instructed her to “take all and pay all.” It wasn’t uncommon for a woman, usually the dead man’s wife, to be named executrix, but Margaret’s situation was unique. She wasn’t Calvert’s wife—she wasn’t married at all.
Not long after Leonard Calvert died, the soldiers he had hired to protect his colony began to demand their pay. Margaret had used the governor’s money to pay his other debts, but there was not enough left for the soldiers, and under English law, she couldn’t sell his land. The soldiers were threatening to mutiny, and there was a shortage of food in the Colony.
Maryland’s Lady Savior
Margaret Brent would have to save the Colony. Without her, the Calverts might lose their territory to Virginia. Now a mature woman of forty-six, she was well qualified for this task. Like many women of her class, she had enjoyed a basic education in England, and had watched her father conduct the business of his estate.
She also had considerable experience in the public arena. As a single woman of property in Maryland, she had appeared frequently before the Provincial Court to file suits against her debtors. She had also acted as an attorney, pleading the cases of her brother Giles and various women before the court, and she did not hesitate to use the power Calvert had assigned to her.
Representation in the Maryland Legislature was based on property. On January 21, 1648, she went before the all-male Assembly and asked for two votes—one for herself as a landowner and one as executor of Calvert’s will. She probably hoped to convince them to pass a tax to help pay the disgruntled soldiers. Her petition was hotly debated for several hours, but it was ultimately denied by the Assembly and the new Governor, Thomas Green. That denial set a precedent for almost 300 years.
But Margaret did not give up. Governor Calvert had been serving as attorney in Maryland for his brother, Lord Baltimore. She went to the Provincial Court and asked that she be named Lord Baltimore’s attorney in Leonard’s place. Her request was granted. The soldiers camped in St. Mary’s City were demanding bread, so she imported corn from Virginia. Then, she sold some of Lord Baltimore’s cattle to pay the soldiers.
From England, Lord Baltimore launched a “bitter invective” against Brent, protesting against the sale of his cattle and accusing her of wasting his estate. Although the Maryland assembly declined to grant Margaret Brent a vote, it did defend her stewardship of Baltimore’s estate, advising him that it “was better for the Colonies safety at that time in her hands than in any man’s…for the soldiers would never have treated any others with that civility and respect.”
Unfortunately, Lord Baltimore was not convinced by the Assembly’s praise. Also, while Leonard Calvert was away in England in 1644, she had allowed her brother Giles to marry her ward, Mary Kitomaquund. Lord Baltimore might have feared that Giles would claim Indian lands in her name.
New Life in Virginia
Whatever the motivation, Margaret, Mary and their brother Giles moved to the Northern Neck, across the bay in Virginia, in 1649. She acquired a large tract of land there, and gradually settled her estate with new settlers from England.
She and her sister never married, making them two of the very few single English women in the early Chesapeake area. Their single status might be more unusual than most people realize because, in coming to Maryland, they became part of a society in which men outnumbered women by six to one. The pressures on them to marry must have been very strong.
Margaret Brent died on her Virginia plantation, which she had named Peace, in 1671, leaving extensive property in Virginia and Maryland, mostly to her brother Giles and his children.
She did not succeed in becoming the first woman in America to gain the right to vote, but she helped protect the stability of Maryland and ensure the colony’s survival. She was involved in over 100 court cases in Maryland and Virginia, and was a major landowner. She deserves recognition for her independence and determination.
The Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award, established by the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession in 1991, recognizes and celebrates the accomplishments of women lawyers who have excelled in their field and have paved the way to success for other women lawyers.