Margaret Brent, Suffragette?


Figure 1.  We have no evidence that this thimble from Mattapany was used by Margaret Brent, but it is a type of colonial artifact typically associated with women. Photo by Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory. Courtesy of Naval District Washington Region.

Figure 1. We have no evidence that this thimble from Mattapany was used by Margaret Brent, but it is a type of colonial artifact typically associated with women. Photo by Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory. Courtesy of Naval District Washington Region.

Thimbles, like this copper alloy example recovered from Mattapany (18ST390), the 17th-century home of Charles Calvert, third Lord Baltimore, are often deemed women’s objects.  Of course, thimbles were employed by male tailors and other craftsmen working in trades that required needles.  But, in this blog, I am using a thimble in its more traditional sense as a women’s object.

The topic of today’s blog starts with a 17th –century female who defied contemporary gender roles.  Margaret Brent and several siblings moved to the Maryland colony in 1638, when Mistress Brent was 37 years of age.  Much has been written about Margaret Brent over the intervening centuries.  Among the unofficial titles she has been given are “America’s first feminist”, “the real first woman attorney in Maryland”, “gentleman” and the somewhat less kindly designation “spinster”.  She was the first female in Maryland to hold land in her own right, having been granted over a thousand acres in St. Mary’s County by Lord Baltimore (Neal 1982).  She appeared in court on her own behalf, seeking reparation for debts and became a trusted friend of Leonard Calvert and executor of his estate (Cinlar 2004).

Figure 2.   Depiction of Margaret Brent appearing before the Maryland Assembly. Image courtesy of the National Geographic Society. Maryland Commission on Artistic Property, Maryland State Archives.MSA SC 1545-0789

Figure 2. Depiction of Margaret Brent appearing before the Maryland Assembly. Image courtesy of the National Geographic Society. Maryland Commission on Artistic Property, Maryland State Archives. MSA SC 1545-0789

In January of 1647/48, Margaret Brent appeared before the Maryland Assembly, requesting speaking privileges and a vote. Not surprisingly, Mistress Brent was denied her request, but it did earn her the acclaim of future historians.  One of them, Mary Beth Norton, argues that Brent should not be accorded status as a feminist or suffragist, because she was not advocating for other women, only seeking the right for herself to vote as a representative of Lord Baltimore (Norton 1996).

It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that the women’s suffrage movement began in the United States, with the first Women’s Rights Convention held in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848 (Historynet 2014 ).  The convention, organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, was held “to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of women” publicly. The Declaration of Sentiments drafted at the convention insisted on the recognition of women as equal members of society.  This document became the blueprint for the women’s rights and suffrage movements, which quickly garnered national attention.  While limited, some women did gain elected seats in some states; Susanna Salter of Argonia, Kansas was the nation’s first elected female mayor (1887).  In 1894, three women were elected to the Colorado House of Representatives, and the first female state senator was elected in Utah in 1896 (all without the benefit of a female electorate!).

The suffrage movement was slower to take off in Maryland than in some other states.  The Baltimore Suffrage Club, part of the National Woman Suffrage Association, was formed in 1894 (Sander 2008).  Baltimore, as the largest city in the state, was more active in the suffrage movement than other portions of the state.  A statewide association, the Maryland Woman Suffrage Association, was formed the same year. The 38th National American Woman Suffrage Association Convention was held in Baltimore in February of 1906, with 86 year old Susan B. Anthony in attendance.

A number of Maryland women emerged as leaders in the state movement. Etta Haynie Maddox and Emilie A. Doetsch, the first practicing female lawyers in the state (passing the state bar in 1902-1903) spoke out freely on womens’ voting rights (Brugger 1988:449).  Etta Maddox’s sister, Emma Maddox Funck, was another leader in the Maryland suffrage movement, serving as president of both the Baltimore Suffrage Club and the Maryland Woman Suffrage Association.  Another early suffragist in Maryland was Edith Houghton Hooker, who organized the Just Government League in 1909 (Hooker 2014).  In 1910, the defeat of suffrage in the Maryland General Assembly led Hooker and other suffragists to press for passage of a national constitutional amendment. In 1912, she began publishing Maryland Suffrage News, a short-lived newsletter that provided readers with language and techniques for refuting antisuffragist opinions, as well as educated its readers on social issues that affected working class women (MSA 2001).

Figure 3.  Members of The Just Government League of Maryland marching for Women's Suffrage in Washington, DC, March 3, 1913. Maryland State Archives. MSA SC 2167-3

Figure 3. Members of The Just Government League of Maryland marching for Women’s Suffrage in Washington, DC, March 3, 1913. Maryland State Archives. MSA SC 2167-3

In February of 1913, a group of women called “The Army of the Potomac” marched across New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland on their way to the nation’s capital.  The Maryland Woman Suffrage Association petitioned Congress for women’s voting rights, but never persuaded the Maryland General Assembly to amend the state constitution.  Women’s right to vote finally came in 1920, with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.  Later that same year, the League of Women Voters was founded by members of the National American Woman Suffrage Association as a means of fostering informed participation by the new female electorate.

References

Brugger, Robert.  1988.  Maryland; A Middle Temperament, 1634-1980.  Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

Cinlar, Nuran.  2004.  “Came Mistress Margaret Brent”: Political Representation, Power, and Authority in Early Maryland.  Maryland Historical Magazine.  Volume 99 (4):405-428.

Harper, Ida Husted.  1922. The History of Woman Suffrage. Volume VI.  National American Woman Suffrage Association.  Website accessed on October 15, 2014 at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/30051/30051-h/30051-h.htm#CHAPTER_I.

Historynet.  2014. Seneca Falls Convention.  Historynet.com.  Website accessed October 15, 2014 at  http://www.historynet.com/seneca-falls-convention.

Hooker 2014.  Edith Houghton Hooker (1879-1948).  Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame.  Website accesse October 10, 2014.  http://msa.maryland.gov/msa/educ/exhibits/womenshall/html/hooker.html.

MSA (Maryland State Archives).  2001.  Edith Houghton Hooker (1879-1948).  Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame.  Website accessed October 10, 2014.  http://msa.maryland.gov/msa/educ/exhibits/womenshall/html/hooker.html.

Neal, Harry Edward.  1982.  Margaret Brent, Gentleman.  Maryland Magazine Winter 1982, pp. 30-32.

Norton, Mary Beth.  1996.  Founding Mothers and Fathers; Gendered Power and the Forming of American Society.  Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

Sander, Kathleen Waters.  2008.  Mary Elizabeth Garrett; Society and Philanthropy in the Gilded Age.  Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

Spruill, Julia Cherry. 2005.  Mistress Margaret Brent Spinster.  Maryland Historical Magazine.  Volume 100 (1):48-54.

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