By Elizabeth Hughes, Director, Maryland Historical Trust
In June 1915, a caravan of suffragists arrived in St. Mary’s City to honor Margaret Brent, a 17th century Marylander lauded by many as the first woman suffragist in America. The “Margaret Brent Pilgrimage,” sponsored by the Just Government League, was designed to garner the attention of the media and stir the imagination of the public. The successful spectacle inspired newspaper articles in state and local papers which tracked the pilgrims’ progress over a series of weeks during the summer of 1915. Most of the sites that hosted the caravan are located in the Four Rivers and Southern Maryland Heritage Areas and can still be visited today.
The pilgrimage caravan, designed for maximum effect, was described by the Baltimore Sun in May of 1915 as consisting of:
“A prairie schooner, two big white horses, some pots and pans and army cots, a bottle of citronella, four women suffragists and one man (who) will leave tomorrow for Southern Maryland on a pilgrimage to the home of Margaret Brent, the first suffragist of America…”
The sides of the canvas covered wagon were emblazoned with the slogan “Votes for Women,” two American flags unfurled on either side of the wagon’s bench seat, and – in addition to pots and pans – the wagon included a typewriter, a camera, and a flaming gasoline light for night meetings. On the wagon were Miss Mary O’Toole, an Ireland-born Washington lawyer and Secretary of the Washington, DC, branch of the College Equal Suffrage League; Mr. and Mrs. Frank Ramey, the former both an attorney and a suffragist; Mrs. Frank Hiram Snell, a New Englander who previously worked in Missouri on the suffrage amendment there; and Miss Lola C. Trax, a Marylander who was a prolific writer and professional organizer in the women’s suffrage movement.
Miss Trax had planned the 350-mile journey, which would begin at the Just Government League headquarters at 817 N. Charles Street in Baltimore City and travel south through Annapolis, Prince Frederick, and Solomon’s Island to St. Mary’s City, with the return trip planned through Leonardtown, Charlotte Hall, La Plata, and Upper Marlboro before their return to Baltimore. In all, the plan was for the pilgrims to cover an average of 15 miles per day, stopping at 37 towns along the route. They would host up to three open- air meetings per day, in order to “tell the inhabitants about the votes for women movement” in the hopes of arousing interest and obtaining converts.
The caravan set off from Baltimore on May 31st, stopping in Glen Burnie and Severna Park. On June 1st the front page of the Evening Capital newspaper heralded their arrival in Annapolis with the headline “Suffrage Pilgrims Invade City Today.” After meeting with the Mayor, the caravan relocated to the front of the courthouse, where the suffragists expounded on their cause before a large crowd.
Although off to an auspicious start, their luck didn’t last. As reported by the Sun paper on June 4th:
“…one of the worst storms that has visited this section in weeks has been sweeping over the State. The thermometer has registered March temperatures instead of June mildness. Yet dauntlessly, indefatigably, that rain-soaked wagon, fresh and new no longer is being towed through roads that experienced country travelers are shy of. Sometimes the road is entirely erased by the flood of water that is drenching the country. Other times, a thick clinging mud is sucking up the wheels to their very hubs.”
This miserable weather not only chilled the wagon’s passengers, who were wrapped in steamer rugs, sweaters and raincoats, it also kept the hoped-for audiences at home. The Sun reported “So far six towns have gone unconverted even partially by the caravaners. These are Edgewater, Scrabbletown, Galesville, Shadyside, Deale, and Friendship.”
Despite these challenges, the suffragists pressed on, viewing their pilgrimage “as a sacred mission that will bear fruits in a wider demand for the vote among women and a larger sympathy among men.” The caravan received a particularly warm welcome in Prince Frederick, where the Sun reported:
“Judge Briscoe came out to greet the caravaners as the big prairie schooner arrived in the town, he handed the suffragists the key to the town, declared himself at their service and told them the Courthouse was entirely at their disposal.”
That night, in the main courtroom, three worn-out suffragists slept on three camping cots stretched out in a row.
Finally, on June 8th, the caravan arrived in St. Mary’s City. The St. Mary’s Beacon reported that hundreds of people had gathered on the grounds of St. Mary’s Seminary which were fluttering with “Votes for Women” pennants. The veranda of the building was used as the rostrum from which each of the five caravaners addressed the expectant crowds. After the meeting, groups of suffragists visited local historical sites including the home of Margaret Brent, the Leonard Calvert monument, and Trinity Church before beginning the second leg of their journey.
Overall, the suffragists traveled for 23 days through Maryland’s southern counties. One participant sent back a preliminary report of their results just before the journey’s end, writing:
“[We] spoke to 2423 people, secured 343 members, and raised $65.27. The expenses are heavy and the hardships many. It takes a ‘good sport’ to be a successful campaigner. A caravaner must be prepared for all kinds of weather, all kinds of food and activity, and all degrees of response from varying audiences. Those who want to do real work can get it with us, but those who are looking for emotional thrills or a vacation should pass us by.”
Today, a State Historic Roadside Marker commemorates this journey and all those who did the “real work” necessary in order for women to have the right to vote. It is important to note, however, that while the 19th Amendment guaranteed the freedom to vote regardless of sex, it primarily benefited white women. The fight for full voting rights for women of color in America continued for decades afterwards – for African American women, particularly in the South, this meant an ongoing struggle until passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.