Margaret Brent was not only the first woman to act as an attorney in the New World, but she was the first private owner of immense tracts of land in Maryland and Virginia—including property later owned by George Washington—and is best known as the first woman in America to ask for the right to vote.
Brent arrived in Maryland in 1638 with two brothers and a sister. Less than a decade later, Lord Calvert, governor of Maryland, appointed her as sole executor of his estate, and her decisive actions ensured the survival of the colony.
In this time machine interview, we welcome Margaret Brent.
EL: You were primarily a businesswoman. You developed land, sold crops and cattle, collected rent, lent capital to new settlers and appeared in court pretty often to collect debts. Is that how you came to be regarded as our nation’s first woman attorney?
Brent: I had to provide for myself as an unmarried woman. I never refrained from using any power or authority granted me.
Leonard Calvert chose me as his executor in the certainty that I could be trusted to settle his affairs.
EL: The two of you held joint guardianship of an Indian princess?
Brent: Yes, Mary Kitomaquund is the daughter of a Piscataway chief who wished us to educate her in English.
EL: Lord Calvert’s last words to you a few hours before his death are remembered.
Brent: He said, “Take all and pay all.”
EL: So you had to settle his debts, starting with 56,000 pounds of tobacco.
Brent: It was not enough. The soldiers were hungry, and Lord Calvert had promised to pay them. Yet, the burgesses wanted to repeal a tobacco tax that might have satisfied the soldiers and avoided any more trouble.
I succeeded in having the Maryland Assembly transfer to me Lord Calvert’s power of attorney for his brother in England, Lord Baltimore.
I next requested two votes in the assembly, one for myself as a landowner and the other as Lord Baltimore’s representative. The governor refused, I protested, and on that very same day, I paid a soldier with a cow.
EL: One of Lord Baltimore’s cows.
Brent: Indeed. I judged it wiser to discharge the debt with a dozen cows than to sell any of the land that Lord Baltimore was about to inherit from his brother.
EL: Lord Baltimore did not see the wisdom of this.
Brent: He was furious with me.
EL: But the Maryland Assembly defended you. They wrote to Lord Baltimore that his estate and the safety of the colony were better off in your hands “than in any man’s … for the soldiers would never have treated any other with that civility and respect.” They also said you deserved his thanks instead of his “bitter invectives.”
Brent: All for naught. We removed to Virginia.
I purchased some thousands of acres west of the Potomac River in a land grant from the colony, and we developed our beloved plantation “Peace.”
EL: What would you say if we told you that some of the land you settled became one of the most prosperous ports in America?
Brent: You jest.
Sources: Maryland State Archives; Early American Review; Virginia Magazine of History and Biography.