As we approach another election day we might do well to remember a strong-willed and brave immigrant who was the first woman known to vote in the New World – Deborah Dunch Moody. Deborah was born around 1586 in Wiltshire, England to a wealthy and influential family. Her father was a member of Parliament; her grandfather was a Protestant bishop who often spoke against religious intolerance. Deborah and her siblings enjoyed a privileged and comfortable childhood.
In 1606 she married Henry Moody, who was knighted soon after their wedding, thus making her Lady Deborah Moody. The couple had two children and enjoyed great wealth and privilege, but it was not to last long; Henry Moody died in 1629, leaving Deborah a widow in particularly turbulent political times. King Charles I had recently succeeded his father, James I to the throne of England. Like his father, Charles believed in the divine right of kings, and insisted on strict adherence to the liturgy of the Church of England. There was no tolerance of dissent, and non-believers were often executed.
Deborah secretly belonged to the Anabaptist faith and was against the practice of infant baptism. She believed children should not be involved in religious ceremonies they did not understand. But this was heresy to King Charles. As religious persecution of Anabaptists increased she decided to leave her homeland and seek religious freedom in the New World. She arrived in Boston in 1640, and purchased property in the nearby town of Salem.
But if Deborah thought she would find religious freedom in Salem Massachusetts she was sadly mistaken. The Puritans who had fled England to escape religious persecution were now inflicting even greater oppression on those in Salem who did not agree with them. Once again Deborah was forced to flee, travelling by ship down the east coast, past Roger William’s settlement in Rhode Island, and into New York harbor.
There was no Statue of Liberty in the harbor to welcome her in 1643, and one wonders if she didn’t consider turning around and returning to Boston. But there was no going back – the governor there had been told to turn her away if she returned; many in Boston believed that her “radical” beliefs had made her a “very dangerous woman.” Fifty-seven year old Deborah Dunch Moody had run as far as she could go. She and her fellow travelers settled in the city of New Amsterdam, where they were granted a patent from the then-governor William Kieft for a tract of land on the southwest corner of Long Island that would eventually be called Gravesend.
Gravesend did not evolve haphazardly; rather it was a planned community, spreading over a 16 square acre tract. The tract was divided into four squares of four acres each, with two roads bisecting it, and ten house lots to each square. In the center was a large public area that would later provide space for a school, town hall and cemetery, and the entire tract was surrounded by a wall offering protection from warring Indian tribes. Lady Deborah was one of the patentees, the first woman ever granted a land patent in the New World, and one of the freedoms guaranteed patentees was to worship in their homes as they saw fit. More settlers followed, many from the Society of Friends (Quakers), themselves seeking religious freedom, and as the town grew there was a need to elect magistrates and decide on laws governing the community. Lady Deborah Dunch Moody took full part in these elections, thus becoming the first woman known to vote in the New World.
Today Gravesend in Brooklyn is a multiethnic community of homes, restaurants and apartment buildings. But remnants of the original four-square, 16 acre settlement are still faintly visible in the outline of the streets, and history still remembers the courageous woman who traveled thousands of miles seeking religious freedom, the first real Lady Liberty in the New World. Remember that “dangerous woman” when you go to the polls this November.