Penelope Barker (1728 – 1796)

Penelope Barker (1728–1796) was one of the first known female political activists. Yet she was also a “proper” lady. She is known for organizing what is called the Edenton Tea Party. On October 25, 1774, she persuaded fifty women to support fellow colonists in their resistance to British taxation. The 51 ladies signed a statement promising not to drink tea or wear English linen. They were protesting the British Tea Act and the “Intolerable Acts” that punished Boston for its December 1773 “Boston Tea Party.”

The signed statement is considered one of the first political activities by women in the history of the colonies and the United States.

In 1728, Penelope Barker was born as Penelope Padgett in Edenton, North Carolina. She was one of three daughters of a landowner, who was also Edenton’s justice of the peace, and Elizabeth Blount, the daughter of a landowner. Penelope’s sister Elizabeth married an Edenton attorney, John Hodgson, but she died in 1740, leaving Hodgson with three young children. In 1745, Penelope, at the age of 17, married Hodgson. But four years later, he too, died, leaving Penelope with four children and pregnant with another.

Needing help to collect the debts of her late husband, Penelope found it from James Craven, a local attorney, born in Yorkshire, England. He had been a friend of John Hodgson and had served in North Carolina’s House of Commons (or House of Burgesses). They married in 1751, but Craven died in 1755, leaving Penelope with extensive property and great wealth.

In 1758, Penelope was married a third time, to Thomas Barker, also an attorney and political figure. He had come to Edenton from Rhode Island and received a grant for 600 acres of land in nearby Bertie County. After his first wife died, he returned to Edenton, where he became active in politics, serving as a member of the House of Commons. There he introduced several reform bills. From his previous marriage he had one daughter, Betsy. Thomas and Penelope had three more children, but all died before their first birthdays. 

Thomas was named to the Governor’s Council and in 1761 the Assembly sent him to London as an agent representing the colony. He was there for 17 years. Although he tried to return in 1776, the revolution and the British blockade prevented him from arriving in Edenton until 1778 (and then by way of France, an ally of the United States). When he returned, he had to take an oath of allegiance to the new state of North Carolina, or else his property could have been confiscated.

After that long absence, he and Penelope lived quietly in Edenton in what is now called the “Barker House.” Thomas died in 1789, while Penelope died seven years later, in 1796.