Meet Hannah Callowhill Penn, PA’s first and only woman leader

William Penn’s wife ran Pennsylvania after her husband fell ill — and kicked ass doing it.

A portrait of Callowhill Penn was hung at the Governor's Office in 2015

A portrait of Callowhill Penn was hung at the Governor's Office in 2015

Commonwealth of PA
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Here’s something they don’t really teach you in history class:

William Penn’s wife was, to put it bluntly, a baddie in a bonnet.

Three centuries ago, Hannah Callowhill Penn smashed the glass ceiling with business acumen, diplomatic sensitivity, Quaker values and a dainty curtsy. She became Pennsylvania’s first and only official woman leader, and called the shots for nearly fourteen years — during a time in which women were usually relegated to roles like churning butter and breast feeding.

Without her at the helm, Pennsylvania may well have ended up surrendered to the Brits for a cash settlement, and the colony could have become embroiled in a civil war with Maryland.

So, why does Hannah’s legacy exist only in the shadow of her husband’s?

International Women’s Day is a perfect time to pay tribute and give kudos to the ride or die of our state’s namesake.

A precocious start

Hannah Callowhill was born Feb. 11, 1671, to a family of progressive Quaker merchants in Bristol, England.

Though she originally was one of nine siblings, by the time she was a teenager, Hannah was an only child. Her parents were intelligent enough to disregard 17th century norms and teach their daughter, now the sole heir to their grocery store and button-making company, accounting and management skills.

These capabilities would later serve to be invaluable assets for the preservation of Pennsylvania.

Hannah met Billy Penn when she was a hopeless spinster of 24 and he was a dashing bachelor of 52. She charmed the recently widowed Penn with her cleverness and how she played “hard to get” even though she was already considered to be an old maid.

The pair married in 1696 in Bristol’s Friends Meeting House in what was described as a “plain” wedding. Married life, thereafter, was anything but plain.

For one thing, there was Pennsylvania to deal with. Penn’s “Holy Experiment” across the Atlantic Ocean was saddled with debts and internal strife.

Networking like a boss

William, by most accounts, was a decent man who believed in peace, tolerance, and community-building among peoples of different backgrounds, but his idealism often caused him to make poor judgement calls and to trust the wrong people.

It was even harder to manage the colony from afar, so Hannah, ever-patient and prudent, agreed to make the perilous and uncomfortable journey to the colonies to keep a closer eye on their land.

(Notably, she happened to be pregnant with her first child at the time, so spent her last trimester alternating between seasickness and morning sickness.)

Once she’d arrived in the colonies, she refused to playing the role of Real Housewife of Pennsbury Manor.

Instead, she spent the next 23 months rubbing elbows with the big shots and the fat cats her husband was chummy with. As author Carole Chandler Waldrup puts it in More Colonial Women: 25 Pioneers of Early America, Hannah wowed the powdered bigwigs with her “common sense, dignity and careful attention to details.”

These acquaintanceships with government officials and wealthy men would prove to be crucial during Hannah’s gubernatorial term.

Governing from afar

In 1701, the Penns returned to their mother country because of money issues.

William was unable to keep his finances in check in any of the three places he owned properties: Pennsylvania, London, and Ireland. (Billy’s son with his first wife, William Penn Jr., inherited his father’s prowess to incur debts — more on why Junior was a jerk later).

There was also the pressing issue of the royal government constantly threatening to seize the colony, which was at this point known as “the Poor Man’s Country.”

Over the next 11 years in England, Hannah and her father, Thomas, would issue William many I.O.U.’s in order to keep the Penn family — and its colony — from slipping into ruin. In 1712, Hannah’s father died and William suffered a series of debilitating strokes that rendered him mentally and physically incapacitated.

Callowhill Penn stepped up. She not only vowed to keep her father’s affairs afloat, but also committed herself to take action in Pennsylvania.

Confirmed by the courts

As Acting Proprietor of Pennsylvania, Hannah consistently paid off her husband’s debts and kept up with his financial and legal affairs with the money she was making as the owner of her family’s business. (This sometimes meant forging her feeble-minded husband’s signature and writing letters in his guise, for the good of the colony.)

She also protected the colony’s interests.

When Lord Baltimore of Maryland started claiming that the eastern part of Pennsylvania (which included Philadelphia) belonged to him, Hannah searched relentlessly for the original deed for the property signed by Queen Mary, and settled the boundary dispute in 1714.

William Penn died four years later — and when it was discovered that he had named Hannah his successor and the major Pennsylvania landowner, Junior threw a fit.

But in a historic court battle of stepmom versus whiny son, the Board of Trade and the Assembly actually sided with a woman in a property case. They did so again when Junior’s son, Springett, tried to avenge his father’s loss with a second lawsuit.

Hannah led the colony from 1718 until her death on Dec. 20, 1726. She was one of the first women in Britain (and in what would become the United States) to have formal political authority.

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Flickr Creative Commons / Ken Lund

A late commemoration

Callowhill Penn’s actions during her 14 years of Pennsylvania leadership were long-reaching.

Among other things, she designed a more efficient way to keep track of rent payments, executed treaties with the Lenape, Conestoga and Iroquois, mediated religious spats, and strongly fought for a woman’s right to inherit a husband’s estate.

Some 250 years after Hannah’s death, Ronald Reagan bestowed honorary citizenship on both Penns, marking them two of three Brits to hold that distinction (the third is Winston Churchill).

And finally, on January 15, 2015, Hannah’s portrait was hung in the Governor’s Office in Harrisburg, situated alongside her husband and other state leaders. In Philly, there’s currently a historical marker plaque (near Independence Hall) and a street (Callowhill) dedicated to her.

Seeing as she kept Pennsylvania from becoming a complete failure, Callowhill Penn is worthy of a lot more recognition.