Women of Washington

Communicating America’s Founding Principles

Women of Washington is an educational organization with a focus on understanding local, national, and global issues that are critical to our world today.

DAUGHTERS OF LIBERTY - Penelope Barker's Tea Party

By Judy Leithe

Like their male counterparts throughout the Revolutionary War Era, women played significant roles in protesting the heavy-handed British rule.  As their fathers, husbands and sons fought for freedom, both on the battlefield and in the Continental Congress, women had to become completely self-sufficient running households, working farmlands and caring for their families.  Many women accompanied their husbands into battle.  They and their children carried supplies, cooked meals, mended clothes, tended to the wounded troops, and made ammunition; they were affectionately called “camp followers.”

In upcoming essays there are even stories about women who disguised themselves as men so they could join in the fight against the British.  And, there are stories about women who became spies for the Patriot cause.  They all put themselves at great risk of being arrested by the British and charged with sedition. 

Women devised ways of boycotting English imported goods using whatever they could produce themselves.  Some women, especially with social standing, were quite public in their defiance of the British.  One such person was Penelope Barker, whose history reveals the challenges encountered in colonial life.

Born in Edenton, North Carolina, on June 17, 1728, Penelope was one of three daughters of Dr. Samuel and Elizabeth Padgett.  While in her teens, both Penelope’s father and her older sister, Elizabeth, passed away.  At age 17, Penelope assumed the responsibility of raising her older sister’s three children.  In 1745, she married her sister’s widowed husband, John Hodgson, and together they had two sons.  Two years later, her husband also passed away.

In 1751, Penelope married James Craven, a wealthy planter.  She was widowed a second time when Craven died in 1755.  Two years later, Penelope married Thomas Barker, a successful Edenton attorney, and they had three more children; however, none lived past infancy.  The Barkers were married for over 30 years.  Thomas died in 1790, and Penelope passed away in 1796.

While raising her five children and overseeing her estates, Penelope Barker was determined to do whatever it took to thwart the British and their onerous taxes, including their Tea Act of 1773, which gave the British East India Tea Company a highly-taxed monopoly in the colonies.  She gathered 50 friends together and, as they sipped local herb teas, brewed from mulberry and lavender leaves, they signed a resolution supporting the Colonial Boycotts.  This event was famously called the Edenton Tea Party.  Their resolution stated: “We, the aforesaid Ladys will not promote [the use] of any manufacturer from England until such time that all acts which tend to enslave our Native country shall be repealed.”

While the Edenton women’s efforts were applauded in the colonial press, they apparently hit a nerve when news of their boycott reached England.  London newspapers ran a famous political cartoon of the Edenton Tea Party, where the women are shown as bad mothers and women of loose morals.