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Penelope Barker: First American Female Political Activist

Donna Campbell Smith is an author, freelance writer, and photographer. She has an AAS degree in equine tech and is a certified instructor.

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

penelope-barker-and-the-edenton-tea-party

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of any manufacture from England, until such time that all Acts which tend to enslave this our Native Country shall be repealed."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

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.

For more information

Visit Historic Edenton, NC

© 2008 Donna Campbell Smith

Comments

Deborah Brown on October 24, 2020:

I did not know this. I work in Edenton and will now take a deeper look.

Donna Campbell Smith (author) from Central North Carolina on August 09, 2013:

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

Treathyl FOX from Austin, Texas on August 08, 2013:

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

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on October 17, 2012:

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.

Donna Campbell Smith (author) from Central North Carolina on October 17, 2012:

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

Sherry Hewins from Sierra Foothills, CA on October 17, 2012:

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

phoneguru from USA on October 17, 2012:

That is one beautiful picture, thanks for your article.

Comfort Babatola from Bonaire, GA, USA on October 17, 2012:

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

carozy on October 17, 2012:

Interesting read.

Ms. Immortal from NJ on October 17, 2012:

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.

Kathleen from Philippines on October 17, 2012:

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

Demi from Mobile, Alabama on October 17, 2012:

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.

Fahd Mehmood Khan from United Arab Emirates on October 17, 2012:

“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."

caseybooth on November 21, 2011:

she is a cool pepoie

:)

sara on October 17, 2011:

she has a cool and awesome life

Donna Campbell Smith (author) from Central North Carolina on July 05, 2011:

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.

jen on July 05, 2011:

If anyone knows of any books written about Mrs. Barker please email me at jalen911@netzero.com. 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:)

awesomer than useual on May 17, 2011:

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

Awesomer than useual on May 16, 2011:

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

person on April 20, 2011:

a totally awesome person!!!!!!!

Ulie the Uyenster on March 23, 2011:

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

video aula de direito on January 24, 2011:

I'm doing a report, on this too.

independency(: on January 13, 2011:

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.

parker on January 13, 2011:

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?

concursos publicos on December 28, 2010:

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

James R. Williams on December 26, 2010:

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.

ashley on December 07, 2010:

i need to know her impact? :/

on December 06, 2010:

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.

csms on November 15, 2010:

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

Dorothe Orr from North Carolina on November 01, 2010:

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

itsnala on October 27, 2010:

heyy guys i got a histry report on thiss

Spoon on March 17, 2010:

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

Rochelle Frank from California Gold Country on January 14, 2010:

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

CooperFlys from Ghostly Savannah,ga on December 21, 2009:

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

Donna Campbell Smith (author) from Central North Carolina on November 24, 2009:

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

somebody on November 24, 2009:

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 !!!!!!:)

Donna Campbell Smith (author) from Central North Carolina on November 23, 2009:

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.

somebody on November 23, 2009:

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

Donna Campbell Smith (author) from Central North Carolina on November 20, 2009:

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

somebody on November 20, 2009:

PLEASEEEEEE HELP CAUSE I NEED TO KNO HOW SHE FELT ABOUT THE WAR I MEAN APPERENTLY SHE DIDN'T LIKE WAT THE BRITISH WAS DOIN BUT EXACTLY HOW DID SHE FELL?:)

Donna Campbell Smith (author) from Central North Carolina on November 20, 2009:

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)

somebody on November 20, 2009:

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

somebody on November 20, 2009:

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

somebody on November 20, 2009:

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!!!!:)))))

somebody on November 20, 2009:

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

Donna Campbell Smith (author) from Central North Carolina on November 09, 2009:

Wonderful! I bet you'll get an A.

robin doom on November 09, 2009:

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 !!!!!

Donna Campbell Smith (author) from Central North Carolina on November 01, 2009:

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.

robin doom on November 01, 2009:

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

buttbuddy on October 18, 2009:

My friend is doing a projecr and this person is gay

Edna on June 07, 2009:

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

Alcat8 on June 07, 2009:

Im doing a project on this to! Good website!

Donna Campbell Smith (author) from Central North Carolina on April 28, 2009:

Danielle, I am so gald to be helpful!

Danielle U. on April 28, 2009:

Im doing a project on her this is great info

wammy on February 17, 2009:

she has a cool life.

Rochelle Frank from California Gold Country on September 05, 2008:

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