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Penelope Barker: First American Woman Political Activist

Updated on February 22, 2014
DonnaCSmith profile image

Donna Campbell Smith is a published author, freelance writer, and photographer. She also specializes in horses.

The Lady was a Rebel


Tea was a symbol of prosperity for colonial Americans, but for colonists like Penelope Barker the British went to far with the Tea Act of 1773. Inspired by the Boston Tea Party, Barker organized a protest of her own in Edenton, North Carolina, sending a message of her own to England that American women were ready and willing to make a stand.

Barker demonstrated remarkable strength throughout her life, but the Edenton Tea Party was arguably her finest moment. She went door to door, calling on the women of the town and inciting them to support a boycott of English tea and clothing. Fifty women heeded the call. They met on October 25, 1774, drank tea brewed from mulberry leaves, and drafted and signed a letter that was later published in a London newspaper. It was the first recorded women's political rally in America.

Portrait of Penelope Barker

The Woman, Penelope Barker

Their proclamation read: ‘We the ladyes of Edenton do hereby solemnly engage not to conform to ye pernicious Custom of Drinking Tea or that we, the aforesaid Ladyes, will not promote ye wear of any manufacture from England, until such time that all Acts which tend to enslave this our Native Country shall be repealed."

Barker took a great risk in leading the protest, not only because she and her husband were prominent property owners in North Carolina but also because her husband was an agent of the British crown. A look at her history, however, shows she wasn't such an unlikely candidate to lead political protests in Revolutionary era Edenton.

Penelope Padgett was born in 1728 to a prominent Chowan county family; her father was a doctor and planter. But his death, followed by the death of Penelope's married sister, Elizabeth, thrust adult responsibilities on the girl. While still a teen, Penelope became a mother to Elizabeth's two children and took over management of the family plantation.

In 1745, she married her widowed brother-in-law, John Hodges. She was pregnant with their second child when John died. Now she had four children to raise. The one bright spot in her difficult situation was the large amount of property she inherited from her husband. Widows in colonial times normally received only one-third of their husband's estates, just enough to serve as dowry to ensure their remarriage.

Rich, beautiful, and widowed at nineteen, Penelope had no shortage of suitors, and in 1752 she married James Craven, a local planter and politician. His untimely death two years later left her a widow again, and with even more property. At the age of twenty-eight she married a third time, this time to a prominent lawyer, Thomas Barker. The couple had three children, but all died before their first birthdays.

Thomas sailed to London in 1761 to serve as agent for the North Carolina colony and became stranded there because of the British blockade of American ships. He didn't return home until 1778. For seventeen years, Penelope again single handedly managed the family and the couple's property. It was during this time that she became publicly involved in the politics swirling around her.

Penelope Barker died in 1796 at the age of sixty-six and is buried, along with her husband, in the Hayes Plantation cemetery. Her famous tea party is remembered with a huge bronze teapot mounted on a cannon west of Village Green. It has become a symbol of Edenton and its revolutionary women.

A Bronze Teapot Commemorates the Edenton Tea Party

Photo by Donna Campbell Smith
Photo by Donna Campbell Smith

The Barker House, 509 S. Broad St., Edenton, NC

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Photo by Donna Campbell SmithPhoto by Donna Campbell Smithphoto by Donna Campbell Smith
Photo by Donna Campbell Smith
Photo by Donna Campbell Smith
Photo by Donna Campbell Smith
Photo by Donna Campbell Smith
photo by Donna Campbell Smith
photo by Donna Campbell Smith

Visiting Edenton, North Carolina

If you are visiting the Outer Banks Edenton is a short day trip inland. Penelope Barker's home, The Barker House, is now a visitor center. Overlooking Edenton Bay at 509 South Broad Street, the house is furnished in period furniture and artifacts. This is the best place to start your tour of Edenton, North Carolina. The town, which was once the capital of the Tarheel State, has over 25 original colonial era historic homes and public buildings, including the county courthouse, which was built in 1767. Several home tours are held throughout the year, the most popular being the Holiday Candlelight Tours in December. Some sites are open year around.

Visit Historic Edenton, NC

A markerEdenton, NC -
Edenton, NC, USA
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    • DonnaCSmith profile image

      Donna Campbell Smith 4 years ago from Central North Carolina

      cmoneyspinner1tf, Thank you for sharing. Yes, we do have a history of strong women in NC!

    • cmoneyspinner1tf profile image

      Treathyl FOX 4 years ago from Austin, Texas

      North Carolina is loaded with some interesting history. Shared this HUB via Pinterest to my board labeled GIRL POWER.

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 5 years ago from sunny Florida

      Thank you for saluting one of our brave women who made a difference for each of us. Tragedy struck again and again but she forged ahead. Pretty amazing. And congratulations on Hub of the Day.

    • DonnaCSmith profile image

      Donna Campbell Smith 5 years ago from Central North Carolina

      Wow, I had no idea I'd won HOTD until reading these comments. Cool and thank you!

    • Sherry Hewins profile image

      Sherry Hewins 5 years ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      I never knew about her, thanks for this enlightening hub. Congratulations on getting HOTD on this well aged hub.

    • phoneguru profile image

      phoneguru 5 years ago from USA

      That is one beautiful picture, thanks for your article.

    • ComfortB profile image

      Comfort Babatola 5 years ago from Bonaire, GA, USA

      Beautiful story, and great history lesson. Congrats on winning the HOTD award!

    • profile image

      carozy 5 years ago

      Interesting read.

    • Cathy Fidelibus profile image

      Ms. Immortal 5 years ago from NJ

      She was a very brave women, to do what she did in an era when women were not allowed to take a part in political issues at all.

    • kathleen1630 profile image

      Kathleen 5 years ago from Philippines

      i wonder why she wasn't mentioned in any of my history classes.. she had an interesting life.

    • DemiMonde profile image

      Demi 5 years ago from Mobile, Alabama

      Great hub. Timely, too, as these people survived a difficult time because they wouldn't take any more. In my own family during the time, my ancestor fought against his brother. I wish the American people would rise up against our increasingly socialistic government and do something about it.

    • eusaphzae profile image

      Fahd Mehmood Khan 5 years ago from United Arab Emirates

      “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle.” (Frederick Douglass).

      Life is all about, "continuous struggle."

    • profile image

      caseybooth 6 years ago

      she is a cool pepoie


    • profile image

      sara 6 years ago

      she has a cool and awesome life

    • DonnaCSmith profile image

      Donna Campbell Smith 6 years ago from Central North Carolina

      I don't know but if you search on amazon you might find one. I have a short scene in An Independent Spirit where she is discussed. Also, if you contact the people at the Barker House in Edenton I am sure they can tell you of any books about Penelope. They have a gift shop and would likely have them for sale if there are any in print.

    • profile image

      jen  6 years ago

      If anyone knows of any books written about Mrs. Barker please email me at We are naming our daughter after her to honor the woman that fought for women to be involved in politics...thus opening the door for women to gain equality in other areas through their political voices. She rocks! I would love to find a book or something on paper about Mrs. Barker to give to my daughter once she is older, so that she understands the woman she is named after:)

    • profile image

      awesomer than useual 7 years ago

      hey umm any one know how penelope barker died? if you do that will be AWESOMER THAN USEUAL!!!!!!

    • profile image

      Awesomer than useual 7 years ago

      i am doin this project on her i get to dress up like her its gunna be AWESOMER THAN USEUAL:) i

    • profile image

      person 7 years ago

      a totally awesome person!!!!!!!

    • profile image

      Ulie the Uyenster 7 years ago

      Helpful saved me cuz i cudnt find anything on her... :]had everything neccesary:)

    • profile image

      video aula de direito 7 years ago

      I'm doing a report, on this too.

    • profile image

      independency(: 7 years ago

      Well, Parker. She had a very sad life but she made history. She had to raise four kids on her own when only one was of her OWN. She was married three times, and widowed twice. If you read the passage above you will understand what I'm trying to say and you will be surprised on what she did.

    • profile image

      parker 7 years ago

      I'm doing a report, on this too. It seems like she was an amazing lady. But I dont know what to write about. Hep?

    • profile image

      concursos publicos 7 years ago

      I like this post, thanks i've already subscribed to your feed.

    • profile image

      James R. Williams 7 years ago

      Ihave discovered the site of the Pagett Plantation,where I beleave Penelope was born or grew up on.

      I found may artifacts on this property,which included several brass buttons,wine tap,1775 i/2 cent,1786 Conn. copper,lots of sherds of pottery.and lots of other things.I donated the items to the BARKER HOUSE.

    • profile image

      ashley 7 years ago

      i need to know her impact? :/

    • profile image

       7 years ago

      It must have been hard to live with soo many deaths. But she kept on going which was good. Now I have a good essay about her.womens can too be important.

    • profile image

      csms 7 years ago

      i am doin a history report about her she is a very independent woman

    • Dorothe Orr profile image

      Dorothe Orr 7 years ago from North Carolina

      Thanks for this story. It gives Tea Party a more honorable meaning:)

    • profile image

      itsnala 7 years ago

      heyy guys i got a histry report on thiss

    • profile image

      Spoon 8 years ago

      I am doing a revolutionary war essay about her, thx for all the cool info!

    • Rochelle Frank profile image

      Rochelle Frank 8 years ago from California Gold Country

      I admire Penelope too-- and I admire Donna for trying to help educate the searching students here, too.

    • CooperFlys profile image

      CooperFlys 8 years ago from Ghostly Savannah,ga

      Very interesting, what a strong woman...nothing but admiration for Penelope !!

    • DonnaCSmith profile image

      Donna Campbell Smith 8 years ago from Central North Carolina

      Yes, please let me know! It has been fun chatting with you;o)

    • profile image

      somebody 8 years ago

      well ok i guess she would feel tht british is unfair and that she can make a difference thnks u helped a lot tell u how my project went when i present it !!!!!!:)

    • DonnaCSmith profile image

      Donna Campbell Smith 8 years ago from Central North Carolina

      You will have to imagine a woman in that day. She was a woman way ahead of her time and must have felt very passionate about the unfairness of taxes. She was also a business woman, running the farms while her husband was away. I think she must have been very smart, very independent (as many NC women still are)

      I think you need to read thoughtfully all you can, and try to think like her to figure out her feelings. We think of women being subservient in those days, but colonial women were strong and shouldered a lot of responsibility. Maybe if you read some books about colonial life it will give you some insight.

    • profile image

      somebody  8 years ago

      yessss i did but i really need to kno how she felt i need raw emotion i mean wats goin through here head

    • DonnaCSmith profile image

      Donna Campbell Smith 8 years ago from Central North Carolina

      Did you read my article? THINK about it;o)

    • profile image

      somebody 8 years ago


    • DonnaCSmith profile image

      Donna Campbell Smith 8 years ago from Central North Carolina

      Try clicking the link that says Edenton and email those folks to see if you can find more information. You'll have to do your own homework, though;o)

    • profile image

      somebody 8 years ago

      im very proud of penelope she did something about wat she believed in

    • profile image

      somebody 8 years ago

      ok first off 'buttbuddy' u sound like a complete rere cause if penelope barker was a great woman and without her u would probullay still be under british rule so bac off

    • profile image

      somebody 8 years ago

      ok donnacsmith if u could tell me how penelope felt any lost diaries anything im doin a report and i need answers that would be great so jus write me back thnks bye!!!!:)))))

    • profile image

      somebody 8 years ago

      this website helped a lot but i still didn't find wat i wanted so boo whoooo!!!!!:(

    • DonnaCSmith profile image

      Donna Campbell Smith 8 years ago from Central North Carolina

      Wonderful! I bet you'll get an A.

    • profile image

      robin doom 8 years ago

      thanks again for this great info now i get to give my report on her and i get to dress like her it is gonna be fun !!!!!

    • DonnaCSmith profile image

      Donna Campbell Smith 8 years ago from Central North Carolina

      Robin, I am so glad my article was helpful. I was visiting Edenton, NC last week and stopped by the Barker House. It is used as a visitor center now. It overlooks the bay, and is so pretty.

    • profile image

      robin doom 8 years ago

      i am doing a report on her and i would tell any one to use this site

    • profile image

      buttbuddy 8 years ago

      My friend is doing a projecr and this person is gay

    • profile image

      Edna 9 years ago

      I didn't know she had all these troubles. those deaths must have molded the person.

    • profile image

      Alcat8 9 years ago

      Im doing a project on this to! Good website!

    • DonnaCSmith profile image

      Donna Campbell Smith 9 years ago from Central North Carolina

      Danielle, I am so gald to be helpful!

    • profile image

      Danielle U. 9 years ago

      Im doing a project on her this is great info

    • profile image

      wammy 9 years ago

      she has a cool life.

    • Rochelle Frank profile image

      Rochelle Frank 9 years ago from California Gold Country

      A fascinating history. What a life of tragedy and triumph she led.


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