This week I spent some time in Edenton, North Carolina. While the scenery is amazing on a spring afternoon, the town’s history intrigues me more. This quaint harbor was the setting of one of our nation’s first revolutions organized completely by women.

In 1774, the Edenton Tea Party served as a rallying cry for independence and self-governance. In a letter to King George, 51 women in the bustling seaside colonial town of Edenton pledged to boycott all English tea and cloth in opposition to the British Parliament’s 1773 Tea Act.

While boycotting a store or a manufacturer over politics and public policy seems commonplace today, then it was a truly revolutionary act. Less than a year earlier, a group of anonymous men dressed in disguise had dumped tea into the harbor in Boston. This time, these North Carolina women put their names, along with their reputations and potentially even their lives, on the dotted line.

The Edenton Tea Party left a legacy for future generation of women and created a pivotal moment in North Carolina’s history and the broader struggle for American independence.

North Carolinians have a rebellious streak. We resist high taxation and demand economic autonomy. In 1774 though, that streak was unusual in women, even dangerous. They risked their lives and livelihoods by raising their voices. According to The North Carolina History Project, their rebellion defied gender roles and the British thought it insubordinate and lawless. They dismissed the Edenton Tea Party as insignificant, but did so at their own peril.

In March 1775, a political cartoon satirized the women who participated in the Edenton Tea Party by picturing some of them with the faces of British politicians. Image courtesy of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History, Raleigh, NC.

The 51 women who signed that letter inspired others throughout the colonies. The wives of merchants and lawyers, they made rebellion acceptable in polite society. “Tea parties” began popping up elsewhere. The Annapolis Tea Party and the Edenton Tea Party happened in October of 1774; the Charleston Tea Party and the Yorktown Tea Party happened just a month later in November of 1774. It was a grassroots groundswell. The Edenton Tea Party became a rallying cry for independence and self-governance, reinforcing the notion that ordinary citizens could collectively stand up against injustice and tyranny.

Today, generations after Edenton’s Penelope Barker led that rebellion, political engagement by women is common and expected. When public schools were shuttered during the COVID pandemic, we saw the spike and power in female activism. Whether it’s schools, taxes, or any other public-policy challenge, women have a voice that sets the course for our nation.

However, we cannot forget those who laid that foundation for us in 1774 and galvanized the values of equality and justice in our national psyche. Their seemingly simple act of defiance symbolizes the spirit of independence and resistance that eventually led to the founding of the United States.

This week in Edenton, I was honored to be part of telling Penelope Barker’s story. The John Locke Foundation is shooting a documentary about those extraordinary North Carolina women ahead of this fall’s 250th anniversary of the Edenton Tea Party. As I sat in Barker’s dressing room this week in her beautiful coastal Edenton home, I was struck by her courage. It would’ve been easier to conform to gender roles — to pay more for tea, groceries, and the things her household needed, just to keep the peace. Barker did not do that. She saw what high taxes by a strong-arm government did to her community, and she fought back.

Barker’s Edenton Tea Party underscores the importance of collective action and grassroots movements in shaping our democracy. By recognizing the role of everyday people in advocating for change, we are reminded of the power of civic engagement and the responsibility each of us has to participate in the democratic process.

American values of individual rights and economic autonomy were engrained in our society by people like Penelope Barker. In the 200 years since, they have proven to be our country’s greatest exports, permeating societies around the world.

We’ve all heard that well-behaved women don’t make history. Penelope Barker and those 51 North Carolina women did more than that; they changed history.

Image of historical marker of the Edenton Tea Party courtesy of the NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.