The ghost of Margaret Brent, a little-known colonial Maryland landowner, businesswoman and lawyer, has been roaming the halls of Lamont Elementary School in Lanham this week in the form of Valerie Parks, a 10-year-old fourth-grade history student.
Chances are you've never heard of Brent, the first woman in this country to ask for the vote. But she and 15 other women who have played a role in American history are being represented by Parks and seven of her classmates in a dramatization that is part of the school's observance of Women's History Week.
Congress declared this Women's History Week nationwide. Gov. Harry Hughes proclaimed it Maryland Women's History Week and designated last Tuesday Margaret Brent Day. Students in Prince George's County's 195 public schools and Montgomery's 177 public schools are observing the week with special programs, said school spokespersons.
Although an obscure figure in American history, Margaret Brent, who never married, was a well-bred, 37-year-old Englishwoman when she left her aristocratic home in Gloucestershire to settle in St. Mary's County, where family connections allowed her a generous land grant. That was in 1638.
Historians say the only traces remaining of this pioneering feminist can be found in court records of land transactions and colonial government sessions. Almost nothing is known about her personal life, and her reasons for leaving her comfortable surroundings in England for the relatively primitive New World can only be surmised.
David Alan Williams, a professor of history at the University of Virginia who has specialized in the history of colonial Maryland, says women in those days wielded considerable influence because they were in short supply at the time.
Records show that Brent certainly was one of the richest and most influential women in the four-year-old colony, the owner of three manors as well as considerable land in Maryland and Virginia.
In 1648, 10 years after arriving in the colony, Margaret Brent appeared before the Maryland General Assembly seeking a double vote in the legislative body. She asked for one vote as a landowner, a requirement for membership in the assembly, and a second vote as business agent to Cecilius Calvert, Lord Baltimore, the colony's founder and proprietor.
This historic event occurred almost 300 years before American women finally won the right to vote in 1920.
Members of the colonial Maryland assembly, though recognizing Brent as "his Lordship's attorney," refused to grant her request for a vote in the house. Since she was acting alone, a bold action for her time, Brent's only recourse was to protest the assembly's proceedings.
Later, acting on behalf of Lord Baltimore and his late brother, Leonard Calvert, former governor of the colony, Margaret Brent was credited by these same assemblymen with quelling a potential mutiny in the colony.
In doing so, however, she incurred the displeasure of Lord Baltimore, some of whose property she had sold to pay off the military debts of the late governor. Perhaps wishing to escape his enmity (although the record is unclear on this point), Margaret Brent moved in 1650 to Virginia, where she continued to acquire land and lived in apparent good health until her death about 20 years later.
The Lamont School dramatization was produced by Renee Domogauer, the school's media specialist. Set at a hypothetical modern-day ERA rally, the skit will be performed through next week, to give all students an opportunity to see it.
The students, who were helped by Domogauer and their teacher, Lynn Chadderdon, wrote their own speeches, painted their own placards and provided their own costumes and other props. Each student played a dual role.
In addition to acting as moderator, Tanya Jones, 9, portrayed both Eleanor Roosevelt and Rosa Parks, the black woman from Montgomery, Ala., whose refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man helped to spark the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
The other girl students, Debra Whitehead, Christine Kim, Kendra Hutchison and Michele Gray, all 9, represented Helen Keller, the blind and deaf author and lecturer, and her teacher-companion, Anne Sullivan; Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly the Atlantic, both as a passenger and as a solo pilot; Elizabeth Seton, who founded the nation's first Catholic school and a religious order in Maryland; Susan B. Anthony, a leader of the women's suffrage movement; Jeanette Rankin, the first U.S. congresswoman; Shirley Chisholm, congresswoman from New York; Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman in the United States to be granted a medical degree (in 1849); and Margaret Edmonston, a Prince George's County physics, English and Latin teacher, who died in 1952.
The two male students, Brian Pearce and Torry Johnson, both 9, portrayed nameless men in the lives of the other four women represented in the skit. Pearce played a constituent of Margaret Chase Smith, the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress, and a male friend of Juliette Low, the first national leader of the Girl Scouts of America.
Johnson represented the tennis coach of Althea Gibson, the first black to win major tennis championships, and the business manager of Mahalia Jackson, the famous gospel singer and civil rights activist.
All the students participating in the skit agreed that they found the project and the women they were learning about "interesting." Tanya Jones, who said she began studying Eleanor Roosevelt in January, said she now considers the late first lady one of her heroines.