Sunday, September 3, 2023

Pioneering Woman of Law – The Spinster, the Rebel, & the Governor by Charlene Bell Dietz

This book is both a find and an inspiration. It is the introduction to the imagined inner and community life, based on research through factual court and other records, of Margaret Brent, the woman whose extraordinary accomplishments in law, at a time when no woman could officially become an attorney, inspired the Margaret Brent Award of the American Bar Association, an honor received by women with accomplished and storied careers in the judicial arena. Brent is largely unknown except by those in the legal field, but once you read this historical novel, you will not soon forget her.

At thirty-six, Margaret Brent left her comfortable home and most of her family in England to start a new life in Maryland in the first half of the seventeenth century. Just the ocean voyage alone would have been daunting, but to come to a small colony of male landowners, some with wives, but many without, a number of servants (most of whom were working off their passage in an indentured arrangement), and the surrounding Native American communities, some hostile, some not, would have been too intimidating for most people, particularly single women.

Margaret and her sister Mary, and their brothers Fulke and Giles, immigrated to the colony of St. Mary's City, Maryland in 1638. They were just four of the children of a large family of Catholic landed gentry in Gloucestershire, England. There was great turmoil in England over religious issues, which began the previous century when Henry VIII abolished the authority of the Pope and made himself head of the Church of England. Both Catholics and Puritans, who were Protestants who objected to the practices of the Church of England, experienced prejudice and repression – hence the establishment of the Puritan colony in 1620 of what became Plymouth, Massachusetts – and families like the Brents, who, despite their wealth and prestige, were living fearfully, as their religious practices were outlawed. 

As single women, Margaret and Mary were able to become landowners in Maryland (if a woman married, her property became her husband's). One of the major themes of the book is Margaret's conflict between her desire for independence and the ownership of her property, versus her feelings for Leonard Calvert, the governor of the Maryland colony.

In addition, the novel presents how Margaret, both well-read and bold, and with a strong sense of justice, began to challenge the all-male government system of the colony, and advocate for those who had been wronged in various disputes. She made appearances before what was the court system of the time, and served as the attorney for those in need. She was also deeply involved in the financial affairs of the colony, and as executrix, managed the affairs of the estate of Leonard Calvert after his death. This too was extraordinary for a woman of her time. 

In the list of historical figures that opens the book, the author shares that Margaret presented over 125 cases to the governing body and that the title of "Attorney" appears in the official records of the time. This accomplishment led to a number of honors in her name in Maryland, and in Virginia, where she later moved.

As presented, Margaret's story and achievements are fascinating – no doubt she was an amazing woman in real life, as well as in fiction. The novel incorporates this historical material in an understandable and accessible writing style, and this woman of the 1600s feels very much alive, with a personality and accomplishments that would make her a powerful figure if she were with us today.

1 comment:

  1. Joan, thank you for the thoughtful and wonderful review of my story about Margaret Brent. I'm so pleased you found this historical biography novel written in an accessible way so you could feel a part of this tough environment back in the 1640s. I appreciate your review.