Penelope Barker: First American Woman Political Activist
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of any manufacture from England, until such time that all Acts which tend to enslave this our Native Country shall be repealed."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
The Barker House, 509 S. Broad St., Edenton, NCClick thumbnail to view full-size
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.