Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Margaret Harrigan Kent, 1858-1941

By Claudia Tesoro, undergraduate student, Binghamton University

Edited and updated, May 2021 by Anne M. Boylan

Officer in State Association of Delaware and member of Delaware Equal Suffrage Association in the 1890s.

Margaret Harrigan was born in September 1858 in Wilmington, Delaware, the youngest child (of five) of Maryland-born Wesley Harrigan (1819-1895) and Irish-born Ellen Reed Harrigan (1827-1894). Hers was a family of skilled workers, with her father and brother Alfred employed in a paper mill, where Wesley Harrigan helped organize a union. Her parents made a commitment to their daughters' educations. Margaret attended the Methodist-affiliated Wesleyan Female College in Wilmington, graduating with a degree in English in 1878. Thereafter, although the college was sold in 1882, she was a loyal member of the Alumnae Association, contributing her time and artistic talents to reunion programs. The 1880 census found her working as a wood engraver; an older sister, Sarah Ella, a school teacher, died in 1883.

On February 14, 1888, in an Episcopal Church ceremony, Margaret Harrigan married Benjamin Lundy Kent, a widower with a grown daughter, Alice Lundy Reid (1867-1922). Margaret later became a Christian Scientist. Benjamin, who went by B. Lundy Kent, was a Quaker who had served in a Pennsylvania infantry unit during the Civil War and been wounded at Petersburg, Virginia. Interested in social and political reform, he championed the ideas of Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan, who visited the Kents in Wilmington on at least two occasions. B. Lundy Kent was president of a lumber company. The couple had two children, Marguerite Kent (later Walker), born in December 1888, and Jay Preston Kent, born on January 6, 1892. Margaret was widowed at 42 when her husband died in 1901 of pneumonia; he was buried in the Friends Cemetery in West Chester, Pennsylvania. In widowhood, Margaret had income from properties left by her husband; the 1910 manuscript census recorded her as living on a pension as the head of the household. Her daughter taught at a public-school in Wilmington before marrying in 1910, while her son was recorded as working at the Samuel Bancroft textile mills. After 1910, the last documented notice of Margaret Kent's Wilmington activism occurred in 1913 when she and six colleagues addressed the Wilmington Charter Commission, calling for the municipal suffrage for women, which was denied.

Margaret H. Kent's involvement with the Wilmington Equal Suffrage Association (WESA) and the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association (DESA) took place in concert with other civic commitments. She was an early member of the Wilmington New Century Club (founded in 1889), the premier white women's organization in the city, active on the Woman's Christian Temperance Union's "social purity" committee, Recording Secretary of the Industrial School for Girls, a reform school for young white delinquents, and a member of two gender-integrated organizations: Wilmington's Associated Charities, a group of philanthropic organizations united to improve the conditions of poor working families, and the city's "Union for the Public Good," a nondenominational association founded in 1894 that focused on studying sociology and bringing together moral forces to improve society.

Within women-only organizations, she worked in concert with a number of local suffragists. Their ranks included Emalea Pusey Warner, Mary H. Askew Mather, Emma Lore, Ida Perkins Ball, Gertrude Nields, and Alice Smyth. She also honed her ideas about society's ills and her speaking skills, most consistently as a member of the New Century Club's Current Events Class. A frequent presenter on Civics and Politics, she advocated for reform of child labor practices, municipal ownership of public utilities, a compulsory schooling law, mitigation of contagious diseases through public health measures, an overhaul of the city's charter, and the need for a new Delaware state constitution.

Having helped to found both the WESA and the DESA in late 1895, she became the second president of the WESA in 1897, elected to a two-year term. In addition to suffrage, both the WESA and the DESA lobbied for laws regarding women's rights, including property rights, inheritance, divorce, guardianship of children, age of consent, women in industry, minimum wage, child labor laws, and mothers' pensions. On June 21, 1894, a lengthy letter by Kent was published in the Delaware Gazette and State Journal, "Why Women Should Vote." In it, she refuted, point by point, the anti-suffrage arguments published in another local paper, the Wilmington Every Evening. She displayed her erudition and wit, and her firm conviction that equal suffrage was a matter of simple justice. She argued that all civilized governments had depressed and degraded women, and she used the words of famous political figures, such as John Stuart Mill, to argue in favor of democracy for all, including women. Kent used these sources to argue that all those who had laws apply to them needed a say in those laws, especially since she believed men were not pure enough to run government alone. Challenging the ideas of separate spheres and immutable differences between men and women, she argued that despite gender, all human beings live the same life, and therefore deserve to have the right to the same experiences. The right to vote was identical to the right to a weapon because the ballot is a form of self-defense against tyranny, Kent argued. She stated, "The right of suffrage is simply the right to govern one's self, to protect one's person and property by the law" (Kent, "Why Women Should Vote"). Suggesting that women's presence in government would improve the community and decrease crime, Kent cited the example of Wyoming, where women had been voting since 1869, and quoted a resolution from that state's legislature lauding the benefits of woman suffrage and requesting that the resolution be forwarded to the governor of every state.

At the DESA's annual state convention in November 1901, Kent read a paper on equal suffrage in which she championed equal suffrage without an educational qualification, a qualification that some in the organization endorsed. (In a segregated state that did not disfranchise Black men, "educated suffrage" could be a mechanism to keep many Black women from voting.) While she supported the education of women and its benefits, Kent met some opposition for her belief that education was not essential for women's right to suffrage. She also argued that women were capable of enjoying suffrage because in areas where women have the ballot, there are higher moral standards. She felt that since women had moral standing at home, their moral influence should also be important in the community.

Margaret H. Kent was influential in the Delaware suffrage community through her constant effort to educate the public through speeches and lectures. She maintained her involvement in the Wilmington community through the WESA and the DESA, but also the Associated Charities, the "Union for Public Good," and the Delaware Industrial School for Girls. Due to the moral value of women, Kent argued that women would contribute positively to government, as they already did so in the private sphere and increasingly in the public sphere.

After her children married - Marguerite in 1910 and Preston in 1918 - and then left Wilmington, Margaret Kent relocated with her daughter Marguerite's family, first, to Woodbury, New Jersey, and then to Brookline, Massachusetts. In Brookline, she took a position in a publishing house, rooming with a younger co-worker, California-born accountant Grace C. Weymouth, a 1910 graduate of the University of California at Berkeley. In 1930, Marguerite, her husband, and daughter were living in Westchester County, New York, and Jay in the Midwest. By then, Margaret and Grace had moved together to Grace's native state. They settled in Santa Monica, where Margaret Kent died on December 15, 1941.


Wilmington, Ward 7, New Castle, DE Census 1900.


Wilmington, Ward 7, New Castle, DE Census 1910.


Chronicling America. Library of Congress, Accessed 9/23/17.

Mary de Vou, "The Woman Suffrage Movement in Delaware," in Delaware, A History of the First State, ed. H. Clay Reed and Marion Björnson Reed. Vol. 1, New York: Lewis Historical Publishing, 1947, pp. 89, 354-59., The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Accessed 9/30/17.

"The Wesleyan Commencement," Wilmington Daily Gazette, June 21, 1878, p. 1.

"For Equal Suffrage," The Wilmington Daily Republic, December 3, 1897, p. 2.

"History of Delaware Equal Suffrage Association Compiled," The Newark Post, August 18, 1920, p. 6.

Ida Husted Harper, ed., The History of Woman Suffrage, Volume 6

"Lives of Children Saved." The Sun (Wilmington, DE), October 20, 1898, p. 1.

Margaret H. Kent, "Why Women Should Vote," Delaware Gazette and State Journal, June 21, 1894, p. 7.

"Woman Suffrage." The Wilmington Daily Republic, November 7, 1901, p. 1.

"Equal Suffrage Convention," Delaware Gazette and State Journal, November 14, 1901, p. 8.

Robert J. Taggart, "Wesleyan Female College of Wilmington, Delaware: A College Before its Time?" American Educational History Journal 35, no. 2 (2008): 221-32.

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