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

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.  There were also women who accompanied their husbands into battle.  Affectionally called “camp followers, the women, and their children, carried supplies, cooked meals, mended clothes, tended to the wounded troops, and made ammunition.

In upcoming essays, there are stories about women disguising themselves as men so they could join the fight against the British on the battlefield.  There are also stories about patriotic women who took on the dangerous role of spying on the British officers occupying their homes as their husbands and sons were away on the battlefield.  With little regard for the listening ears of the colonial women, who were forced to wait on them, the British officers held strategy meetings in her parlors.  The women found ingenious ways of transmitting details of these meetings to American forces, knowing that if caught, they would be charged with sedition against the British Government. 

Women also devised ways of boycotting English imported goods by creatively producing many products themselves.  Some women, especially with social standing, were quite public in their defiance of the British.  One such person was Penelope Barker, whose actions reveal some of 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 additional children.  Two years later her husband, John, 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 thirty years when Thomas died in 1790.  Penelope passed away in 1796.

While still raising her five children, and overseeing her family’s estate, Penelope Barker was determined to do whatever it took to thwart the British and their onerous Tea Act of 1773.  Instead of buying tea from the British East India Tea Company.   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 Lady’s 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.