This year marks a crucial anniversary in American history, the centennial of the 19th amendment and women’s enfranchisement. The amendment-passed congress on June 4th 1919, to be ratified with final passage by Tennessee on August 18th 1920. The 19th amendment handed the right to vote to more people than any other event in our history. I can’t help but get emotional thinking about the struggle and all of the people who are still fighting for voting rights today. Florida has just passed legislation returning voting rights to convicted felons who have served their time and paid – in full – their restitution. This is the largest enfranchisement of voters in over fifty years, with 1.6 million people being brought back into civic life able to register to vote. Hurray!
In commemoration of this momentous year I invite you along to enjoy a year of monthly blogs that will focus on women who have made a difference throughout our shared American experience, particularly women in North Carolina. Strap in and get ready for a women’s historical ride! We are starting this series with European women in the days of the Revolutionary War. Yes, there were historical women before that time and we may even circle back to them. We will be discussing the heroic actions of Black women in North Carolina, specifically the amazing story of Henrietta Jacobs – among others. There were also phenomenal frontier – mostly white – women who provided for family and home in a rugged and trying environment, like Rebecca Bryan Boone. Or the female Moravians and Quakers who not only played a huge role in advancing the interests of women but also worked as abolitionists and anti-war crusaders. And woman’s standing in Native tribes was quite different than those of her European counterparts. The Cherokee’s even had the audacity to send women representatives to Congress in the 19th century- who were consequently not allowed to speak to the chamber.
History is written by the winners, and throughout history the winners have been overwhelmingly male.
No matter how wealthy and powerful a woman may have been – commonly tied to either the status of her father or husband – the thoughts, feelings, and day to day activities of women were usually deemed unworthy of recording. Even Abigail Adams did not think her correspondence with her famous husband, John Adams, important and asked him not to save her letters- good thing for us he did not follow her suggestion. In colonial America – except in rare cases – women were not allowed to own property, hold positions of power, have rights to their children, or enter into contracts; they were essentially property of their husbands, fathers, or in the rare case, brothers. A yeoman woman’s only records of life would have been would have been immigration records, marriage certificates, or a grave-site. I am certain that the sparse historical record of women in our society will remain a running issue throughout this project. We have been, and in some ways remain, a marginalized sex.
18th century reality for colonial women was one of marriage, motherhood, and obedience. “White girls learned early that marriage was their duty and motherhood their destiny. Females were expected to be modest before marriage and obedient afterward…” <1> Marrying well was possibly the most important aspect of a women’s life and had lasting ramifications upon the extended family. “Particularly among the eighteenth-century planter and merchant elite, marriage reinforced social and economic ties linking old and new families…”<2> Families with wealth were able to educate their daughters and wield power to attract a husband with high status. Once married it was not uncommon for women to be habitually pregnant. At a time of high infant and mother mortality rates; it was straight up dangerous to be female before family planning services, birth control, and medical breakthroughs we enjoy today. It was also not uncommon to become a widow. As a widow, a woman could respectfully be allowed to own property, sign contracts, and have personal rights, considered feme sole – “…‘a woman alone.’ In law, an adult woman who is not married, or one who is acting on her own regarding her estate and property.”<3> If her husband was kind she may even have been left a business.
July 4th, 1776 is ingrained in our memories as the day that we became free from British oppression. In reality that was the day that the men of the Continental Congress sent the Declaration of Independence to King George. They had declared our intent to be free from English rule; what would follow would be a fight to make that declaration a reality. What contributed to this separation? England had spent a lot of money to “protect” the colonists particularly during the French and Indian Wars that had culminated in 1763 – really protecting the investment of British corporations in the New World like the Virginia Company, the East India Tea Company, and others. The British Parliament passed the Stamp Act of 1765, later the Tea Act of 1773, followed by the Intolerable Acts in 1774 in an effort to recoup their investment. These were taxes imposed on the people of the colonies all to be sent back to England without the approval or inclusion of the colonists. No taxation without representation. The British had stamped their fate – pun so intended.
In late 1773 the Sons of Liberty – a group of dissenters within the colonies – dressed as Indians and threw tea off of an East India Tea Company ship that had docked in the Boston harbor. The Boston Tea Party, the most famous colonial tea party, would become a spark of the Revolutionary War. But this was far from the only tea party held in protest of the British Parliament’s actions.
On October 25th, 1774 women from Edenton, North Carolina gathered at the home of Mrs. Elizabeth King and held a different kind of tea party from those in Boston – a form of which was spreading across the colonies – the boycott. The Association of Edenton Ladies – as they called themselves, later to be changed to Edenton Tea Party – was lead by Penelope Barker. They drank raspberry leaf tea – grown domestically – and declared their intentions to boycott British-made goods until “colonial grievances were redressed”<4> just like the declaration of war issued by the Continental Congress five days prior. These were informed women, educated and from wealthy backgrounds. They used the “woman’s sphere” to exert political power, the power of the family purse. There were other groups of women throughout the colonies that organized boycotts but the women of Edenton were the first group to take real political action by documenting their intentions. They had committed the first known act of civil disobedience by a group of women in the colonies. Gutsy ladies; I can appreciate that. The Association of Edenton Ladies letter and fifty-one signatures were printed in newspapers in both Virginia and London – unfortunately the original document has been lost to history.
The Edenton Tea Party Letter:
As we cannot be indifferent on any occasion that appears nearly to affect the Peace and Happiness of our Country, and as it has been thought necessary, for the publick Good, to enter into several particular Resolves, by a Meeting of Members deputed from the whole Province, it is a Duty which we owe, not only to our near and dear Connections, who have concurred in them, but to ourselves, who are essentially interested in their Welfare, to do every Thing as far as lies in our Power to testify our sincere Adherence to the fame; and we do therefore accordingly subscribe this Paper, as a Witness of our fixed intention and solemn Determination to do so. <5>
Unfortunately we have no record from the hands of the Edenton Ladies of the events on October 25th 1774 other than the letter that was submitted to the papers. There are no diaries, journals, or letters drafted by the women in attendance discussing the evening. This raises speculation about what exactly occurred that day. Did they gather the signatures after the fact by going into the homes of women of high standing throughout the community or did the women all come together in discussion? We will never know, but we do know that this evening did not happen in a vacuum. The leader, Mrs. Penelope Barker, was active in the Revolutionary cause, educated, and informed of the news across the colonies. She may have been in attendance at a mock funeral for liberty held by the Sons of Liberty in 1765 – though I have found no official record of her attendance, which is not surprising. She was most certainly influenced by the actions of the First Provincial Congress in NC on August 25th, 1774, at which time the men of the colony laid out their grievances against the Intolerable Acts that had been put forth by the mother Crown.
By the late 1750’s Penelope was a double widow and enjoyed a degree of independence not generally held by women of the colonies. After the death of her second husband, James Craven, she became the wealthiest woman in all of North Carolina and a large landowner. Her third husband, Thomas Barker, was a representative of North Carolina in England, among other things, and was often overseas for long periods of time, leaving Penelope an unusual degree of wealth and independence. It is still true today that if you are a person living in or on the edge of poverty, having to continually toil to provide even the bare necessities it can be difficult if not impossible to step out of the daily grind to stand for what you believe in. Penelope was in a unique position to lead other women in Edenton.
The reaction of Londoners has kept the story of the Edenton Tea Party alive; the letter inspired Philip Dawe to create a satirical cartoon of the women and has become more famous than the document that the women drafted. A mezzotint print of the cartoon would eventually find its way back to North Carolina via Morocco over 40 years later to become an item of study in and of itself. Arthur Iredell wrote to his brother James Iredell, who would go on to be one of the first Justices of the Supreme Court, about the ladies’ letter, “Is there a female congress in Edenton too? I hope not, for we Englishman are afraid of the male congress, but if the ladies, who have ever since the Amazonian era been esteemed the most formidable to be dreaded.”<6> The British were not impressed by the actions of a few colonial women.
Nearly lost to history, the Edenton Tea Party became more influential years latter at the end of another war on US soil. “The Edenton story became more widely known after the Civil War, when elite and middling white women emerged as creators and custodians of a celebrated history of the Confederacy and its Old South antecedent.”<7> Their story has been kept alive by the Daughters of the American Revolution. There was even a play written and performed in Edenton during the 1976 bicentennial of our independence called, Oh. Penelope. The example of the Edenton Tea Party was used by anti-suffrage women to show that women did not need the vote but could use the “women’s sphere” to enact change. Oh the irony.
Women would go on to do all number of heroic acts during the Revolutionary war period. They would protect the Homefront by tricking or running off soldiers from their homes (Penelope Barker tricked a few British commanders herself), become spies (for either side), and ride to warn of British troop advancements – many longer and more frequent than Paul Revere’s. Women would dress as men and join the fighting, often by the sides of their husbands. They did this all while keeping a home, educating the children, all other “woman’s sphere” work. Abigail Adams would become her husband’s most trusted confidant and would go on to remind him, “Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.” She echoed the sentiment of the day by saying, “If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”
For More Information:
From the Catalog
Nor the Battle to the Strong, by Charles F Price – historical fiction, Revolutionary war in the South
Blood Oath, by Jimmie Cherokee Waters – historical fiction, local author
Raleigh’s Eden, by Inglis Fletcher – part of the Carolina series of historical fiction books written in the 30’s-40’s
Founding Mothers : the Women Who Raised a Nation by Cokie Roberts
North Carolina Women : Making History by Margaret Supplee Smith and Emily Herring Wilson
John Adams, HBO mini series released in 2008
Resources from NCLive and eBook central:
76 and Forward: Troublous Times: The Roots of Independence, North Carolina 1774-1776 – video created for the 2nd centennial of the United States
North Carolina Booklet – Published by Daughters of the American Revolution, North Carolina chapter. All editions through North Carolina Digital Collections
Martha McFarland Bell – AKA Mattie Bell, Revolutionary from Randolph County NC
1. “A Pattern of History: Women from the Colonial to the Republican Eras.” North Carolina Women: Making History, by Margaret Supplee. Smith and Emily Herring. Wilson, University of North Carolina Press, 1999, pp. 32–71. This is a great resource for those interested in learning about the women of North Carolina. It is available at your local FRL library
2. From the same book and chapter as footnote #1
3. Lewis, Jone Johnson. “The Concept of Feme Sole: A Women’s History Perspective.” Thoughtco., Dotdash, 28 Aug. 2018, http://www.thoughtco.com/feme-sole-3529190.
4. North Carolina Women : Their Lives and Times, edited by Michele Gillespie, and Sally G. McMillen, University of Georgia Press, 2014. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/fontanalib-ebooks/detail.action?docID=1595463.
5. Taken directly from an image of the Purdue and Dixon’s Virginia Gazette, November 3, 1774. There are some printing and textural differences from printing and writing today, so you may see what look like several spelling and grammatical errors. Newspaper clipping found in: North Carolina Women : Their Lives and Times, edited by Michelle Gillespie, and Sally G. McMillen, University of Georgia Press, 2014. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/fontanalib-ebooks/detail.action?docID=1595463.
6. DILLARD, RICHARD. HISTORIC TEA-PARTY OF EDENTON, OCTOBER 25TH, 1774: an Incident in North Carolina Connected with … British Taxation (Classic Reprint). Vol. 1, ser. No.4, Raleigh : Capital Printing Company, 1901. Retrieved online through NCDigital
7. Taken from North Carolina Women : Their Lives and Times cited above in footnote 4