Edenton, North Carolina, is known for its waterfront views, historic architecture and Southern hospitality. Most vacationers, luxuriating in a Victorian B&B or dining on fresh seafood, probably wouldn’t think of it as a hub for women’s empowerment. But this laidback town has a rich heritage of powerful women, dating all the way back to the 1770s.
How It All Started
You’ve heard of the Boston Tea Party. What you might not know is that just a few months later, there was another tea rebellion, this one organized solely by women.
And it happened in Edenton.
In the fall of 1774, Penelope Barker gathered 50 like-minded sisters to sign a declaration that they would no longer purchase the heavily taxed British tea or cloth. Unlike their male counterparts to the North (many of whom disguised themselves to remain anonymous), they signed their names to the protest and shipped it off to England, boldly committing treason.
It’s the first recorded example of women-led political activism in America, and it was met with scorn in England. A London cartoon mocked the protest, putting politicians’ heads on women’s bodies — an insult to say they were acting too masculine.
But Edenton never saw it that way. Then, as now, the town applauded its female leaders. Today, a teapot is part of the town’s logo, and the teapot symbol makes various appearances around town, thanks to residents who are proud of their history. And the cartoon lampooning the women? An enlarged copy hangs in a place of honor in the Barker House.
Explore Edenton’s Feminist History
If you want to experience the best of North Carolina’s first colonial capital from a feminist standpoint, you have several options. Here are a few you shouldn’t miss.
- The Penelope Barker House: Doubling as the welcome center, this historic waterfront house dates back to 1782. It’s a handsome building, featuring period furniture, intricate Federal woodwork and a stately Georgian parlor. As Barker’s home, it’s also the best place to learn about the Edenton Tea Party. Upstairs, a permanent exhibit, “Women of Distinction,” takes a deeper look at the town’s historic and modern female leaders. Bonus: It’s free! You can also pick up tickets for the trolley, which departs from the Barker House for a leisurely tour of the town.
- Harriet Jacobs Walking Tour: Edenton’s two most famous residents have been women. In the 18th century, it was Penelope Barker. In the 19th, it was Harriet Jacobs. Born into slavery, Jacobs escaped a master who threatened to be sexually abusive, hiding in an attic for seven years before fleeing north. In 1860, she published Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. The autobiography doesn’t shy away from addressing the sexual exploitation of black enslaved women, something abolitionist literature largely ignored. Pick up a self-guided tour brochure at the visitor center to follow Jacobs’ story from her family’s church to the jail where her children were unjustly imprisoned to the Maritime Underground Railroad that led her to freedom. It’s all within a few blocks, so you can easily finish in an afternoon, but it’s an experience that stays with you.
- Edenton Bay Cruises: Aboard the eco-friendly Liber-Tea, you can enjoy a pleasant cruise around the bay, spotting osprey and historic sites. The guide, Captain Mark, offers themed tours, and if you ask for one on Edenton’s historic heroines, spanning from colonial days to the Civil War era, he’s happy to oblige. He bills himself as a storyteller, with the artist’s license to deviate from fact, but he knows his history, and his easy going splash of humor makes the ride better.
- 1905 Edenton Teapot: It’s an obligatory photo op. Cast in 1905, this bronze teapot marks the site of the Edenton Tea Party. You can find the sculpture mounted to a cannon barrel on the side of the green fronting the 1767 Chowan County Courthouse. It’s part of the official Edenton Museum Trail and less than a block from the bay, so it’s a fun place to stop as you’re walking from downtown to the water. It’s also near Colonial Park, a great destination if you have kids, featuring a new inclusive playground.
- Josephine Leary Building: Another spot on the museum trail, this Victorian building flaunts an ornate red-and-blue facade that you can’t miss when you’re strolling downtown. It has an even better story. It was one of several properties owned by Josephine Napoleon Leary, and her name is permanently emblazoned on the top alongside the date, 1894. While there were few female real estate moguls in the 19th century, what makes this more impressive is that Leary was born into slavery and rose to prominence through her work as a barber and savvy investments.
Today, female entrepreneurs are reshaping Edenton for the future. They run downtown shops that help reduce and recycle. They support body positivity. They own restaurants that thrive on local, sustainable ingredients. Here’s how to support them and make your getaway even better.
- Downtown Diva: Candace Thompson was one of the pioneers, opening her store nearly a decade ago and helping to revitalize the downtown area. She personally chooses every shirt, jumpsuit, and clutch in their inventory and ships them around the world.
- Finders KeepHERs: Amy Roberson rescues vintage and discarded furniture and reimagines it as thoughtful, custom decor. She’s given new life to family heirlooms and redeemed the occasional treasure on its way to the dump. Plus, she invests in fellow entrepreneurs. She’s opened up an incubator space in her shop to help women-owned businesses get started.
- Victorians: Jacqueline Hardy-Lassiter — mom, veteran and spokesperson for equality — balances a global and local focus in her store. She sells colorful dashikis, skirts, and shirts from Africa with proceeds going to support a school there. Local art decorates the walls, and she occasionally hosts local events like author book-signings.
- Feathers: Next door to Victorians, owner April Layton curates a collection of flirty and trendy fashions in a range of sizes. Why? “It’s important for me to cater to all body types,” she says. Come in and say “dress me” (you won’t be the first) and she will, all the way down to coordinating accessories.
When you stay in a historic B&B in Edenton, your accommodations feel like an attraction in themselves. There are plenty to choose from. Here’s one of the best for a bit of a splurge.
- The Cotton Gin Inn: In 2016, Cheryl Orr converted this historic property into the full-scale bed and breakfast you see today. With its shady magnolia trees and chair-filled verandah, it’s the kind of place that’s made for relaxing. Browse the gardens, admire the unique decor in each room and — definitely — fill up at breakfast. Orr juggles several roles and seems to excel at them all: entrepreneur, interior designer, gardener, hostess, chef. The inn is convenient to the highway, downtown, and the Albemarle Sound.
With the coast nearby, many restaurants incorporate local seafood into their dishes. Southern staples are reimagined, and rich desserts cap off your meal. You won’t leave hungry.
- The Cotton Gin Inn Supper Club: If you’re lucky enough to be there when Orr is hosting one of her supper clubs, just go. She focuses on local ingredients and gives a French twist to comfort food. Sign up for a cooking class and you can make what you eat.
- The Table at Inner Banks: Owner Susan Beckwith runs an award-winning restaurant that specializes in farm-to-table cuisine. From the fancy hors d’oeuvres with Southern roots (pimento cheese-stuffed croquettes, anyone?) to classic desserts like creme brûlée, it’s ideal for a special celebration.
- The 51 House: The name honors the 51 women of the Edenton Tea Party, and this woman-owned restaurant is a must when you’re in town. Come here for oysters, shrimp, salmon and landlubber fare like prime rib and pork chops.
- Edenton Farmers Market: This new nonprofit is on a mission to support local farmers and bring healthy, sustainable food to the people. It’s run by Janet McKenzie, who helps make sure it’s stocked with a wide variety of fresh food for any diet: produce, honey, seafood, cheese, eggs, herbs, canned items and more.
Before you go
Here are a few tips to make your stay even better.
Check the town’s calendar of events. From cemetery tours to plein air painting, there are activities year round. Take a look at Edenton’s online calendar so you can time your trip to coincide with a special event. Some of these, like the annual tour of homes, draw hundreds of visitors, so you may want to call (800-775-0111) to see if you’ll need to book a hotel early.
Take home a souvenir. There’s old-fashioned candy, antiques, and teapot trinkets galore! It’s hard to pick, but if I had to recommend one item, you can’t go wrong with Harriet Jacobs’ autobiography. It’s affordable and available all around town, from bookstores to gift shops.
Don’t miss the sunsets. It’s easy to blow through golden hour while you’re at dinner, but make sure to head to the water before dusk. When the sun sets over the Albemarle Sound, it’s glorious. Photographers will want to position themselves with the 1886 Roanoke River Lighthouse in the foreground for a striking silhouette. You won’t be surprised that Edenton is nicknamed “The South’s Prettiest Small Town.”