Gov. Tom Corbett, along with first lady Susan Corbett, unveils a portrait Sunday of Hannah Callowhill Penn that will be placed in the governor’s office.
By Karen Langley / Post-Gazette Harrisburg Bureau
HARRISBURG -- It took a woman to clear Pennsylvania's debts.
And settle that boundary dispute with Maryland. And confirm land purchases from the native peoples.
Three hundred years ago, his colony saddled with financial and political challenges, William Penn suffered an incapacitating stroke. His wife, Hannah Callowhill Penn, took charge, overseeing Pennsylvania for six years until his death and then another eight.
Soon, her portrait will join those of her husband, her deputy governor, William Keith, and other Pennsylvania governors in a series of paintings that line the walls of Gov. Tom Corbett's offices.
The idea of honoring Hannah Penn grew out of a casual conversation between the president of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and first lady Susan Corbett, who related that young women at the start of Mr. Corbett's term asked how someone could become first lady. When Mrs. Corbett said they might better try to become the first woman governor of Pennsylvania, Kim Sajet, who now directs the National Portrait Gallery, told her about Hannah Penn.
Last week, the Corbetts unveiled the newly finished portrait, paid for with private donations. The artist, Ellen Cooper of Media, Pa., had examined a chalk drawing made during Hannah Penn's life and toured Pennsbury Manor, where she lived during her brief time in Pennsylvania, years before she managed the colony through correspondence from England. Ms. Cooper even tried on the many layers of clothing she would have worn.
"I don't know how Hannah had time to do what she did -- with a husband ill, with a colony on the other side of the ocean to oversee, with lawsuits and boundary disputes, with financial concerns to make right, with seven children of her own and three stepchildren, with the household duties of a woman and with her own illness, not to mention no electricity, no running water," Ms. Cooper said at the portrait's unveiling.
Born in Bristol, England, in 1671, Hannah Callowhill married William Penn on March 5, 1696, when she was 25 and he was 52.
As a Quaker who believed in the equality of women, and as an only surviving child whose prosperous father recognized her as his heir, Hannah had been educated in commerce and accounting as well as in social obligations.
"She learned how to run a business and manage people," Ms. Sajet said. "And this is in fact what saved Pennsylvania."
Financial crisis had persuaded William Penn to try to sell his colony back to the crown. Disagreement about the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland made it harder to collect quitrents, a form of tax, from settlers in the contested territory, said Douglas Miller, historic site administrator of Pennsbury Manor. There was a dispute with a creditor.
After years of negotiation, Hannah reached agreement with Lord Baltimore on the disputed territory, a success that won her the respect of the residents, according to a 2003 article by William Kashatus in Pennsylvania Heritage magazine. She succeeded in upholding good relations with the native peoples, and she fought back a challenge to her authority by William's son by his first marriage, who was described at the unveiling as "a bit of a dissolute."
"One of those leaders who has kind of been in the back pages of history, that you couldn't find, was Hannah Penn," Mr. Corbett said at the unveiling.
To further recognize her, the Department of Education has published lesson plans about Hannah Penn for teachers to use in grades 3-5 and 9-12.
"At the time when Hannah was doing this, the only other woman who had more responsibility in terms of acreage and number of people would have been the queen of England, Queen Anne," Mr. Miller said.
Hannah Penn's portrait will hang in the governor's reception room, where the public can see it, until the summer, when it will join the others in the governor's offices.
Karen Langley: email@example.com or 717-787-2141 or on Twitter @karen_langley.
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to
firstname.lastname@example.org and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner.