If you ask most people about the history of women and the U.S. Supreme Court, they are likely to point to the 1981 nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor as the first female justice. That was a watershed moment in our nation’s history. But to fully understand the relationship of women to the U.S. Supreme Court, we must reach back much farther. This story begins, as all stories about American history inevitably do, during the colonial period.
Margaret Brent: A Colonial Woman in the Courts
While it is true that women were generally prohibited from practicing law in the early years of the nation, there were some notable exceptions. Margaret Brent is one such exception.
Brent and her family were distantly related to the Calverts, the Catholic ruling family of Maryland. She migrated to Maryland in 1638 with her sisters; and she traveled as the head of her own household, which was unusual for a woman at the time. Brent later acquired from her brother 1,000 acres of land. Because she never married, she retained certain legal rights that women, under coverture laws in operation at the time, typically lost once married.
As a single woman, Brent could represent herself in court, and she appeared before courts several times to file suits against her debtors. While not herself a lawyer, she was one of the first women to appear in court to defend her own legal and financial rights. In addition to representing herself within the courts, Brent became the first woman on record to demand the right to vote in an English colony, appearing before the Maryland Assembly in 1647.
Sources: Pamela Barnes Craig, American Women: Resources from the Law Library, Library of Congress (June 16, 2018); National Women’s History Museum, https://www.nwhm.org/education-resources/biography/biographies/margaret-brent/ (last visited Aug. 19, 2020).