Rightfully Hers

Photo courtesy of National Archives.

Historic Saint Mary’s City Celebrates Women’s Suffrage  

By Jillian Amodio 

Some historians will say that the Women’s Suffrage movement began in 1848 with a women’s rights convention held in Seneca Falls, New York. Many suffragists view this meeting as the spark that lit the movement ablaze. But long before this historic milestone, there were many emboldened women paving the way towards equal rights—one of them, right here in Chesapeake country. 

Visitors to Historic Saint Mary’s City can stand in the very place Margaret Brent boldly requested the right to vote. 

Brent (1601-1671) was a colonist that settled in the New World in 1638 as a landowner from England, secured a land grant and engaged in trading and business ventures. She often appeared in court to help settle debts and on occasion acted on behalf of others including her brothers and eventually, Lord Baltimore. On his deathbed, Governor Leonard Calvert appointed her his executor and encouraged Brent to “take all and pay all.” His faith in Brent was unwavering, but Calvert’s brother, the Lord Baltimore, didn’t share the same convictions. Brant was named Lord Baltimore’s attorney after Calvert’s death as an emergency act by the Provincial Court, since he was away in England and Calvert’s soldiers needed to be paid. To help ensure the well-being of the settlement and care for the needs of the soldiers Brent famously went before the assembly and demanded two votes, one for herself as a landowner, and the second as Lord Baltimore’s attorney. This is the first recorded instance of a woman in the New World requesting voting rights. The courts denied her request, not wanting to allow women the right to vote. 

A new exhibit at Historic St. Mary’s City explores women’s rights, past, present, and future. The pop-up exhibition from the National Archives is called Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote, and commemorates the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment and highlights the relentless struggle of diverse activists throughout U.S. history to secure voting rights for all American women. 

The 19th Amendment, ratified on August 18, 1920, granted American women the right to vote. But for many women, the 19th Amendment wasn’t the final piece of the puzzle. 

Discrimination against minorities was still rampant. African Americans and the illiterate in the South were restricted by literacy tests and poll taxes. Much of this was later remedied with the passing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 which banned racial discrimination in voting practices. The more recent Equal Rights Amendment, passed by the Senate in 1972, was never actually ratified. 

The exhibit is located inside the Visitor Center at Historic St. Mary’s City. Visitor Center hours of operation are currently Wednesday through Saturday, 10am-5pm. Social distancing is advised and masks should be worn when touring indoor exhibits.  

Volunteer coordinator Ellen Fitzgerald hopes visitors will stop in to learn about the Suffrage movement. “We can’t stop learning just because we are stuck at home,” she said. “We hope they feel empowered to continue the work that women like Margaret Brent once started.”