Anna Pennybacker, clubwoman, woman suffrage advocate, author, and lecturer, daughter of John Benjamin and Martha (Dews) Hardwicke, was born on May 7, 1861, in Petersburg, Virginia. As a high school student she substituted the unexplained initial J for her second given name, McLaughlin. She graduated from the first class of Sam Houston Normal School in Huntsville, continued her education in Europe, and subsequently taught grammar and high school for fourteen years, including some sessions at the Chautauqua Summer Assembly. In 1884 she married native Texan Percy V. Pennybacker (who died in 1899); they had three children who reached adulthood. Mrs. Pennybacker wrote and published A New History of Texas in 1888, and the textbook was a staple of Texas classrooms for forty years. Active since 1892 in women's clubs, Mrs. Pennybacker founded one of the first in Texas, the Tyler Woman's Club, in 1894. In 1901 she presided over the Austin American History Club. She went on to serve as president of the Texas Federation of Women's Clubs from 1901 to 1903, a position in which she raised $3,500 for women's scholarships at the University of Texas and helped persuade the legislature to fund a women's dormitory there. Additionally, under her leadership the federation began a traveling library and art collection that resulted in the establishment of many permanent libraries in Texas. Mrs. Pennybacker was treasurer of the General Federation of Women's Clubs from 1904 to 1906 and auditor from 1906 to 1908. She chaired the endowment committee of the same organization in 1911–12 and finally served two terms as president of the federation (1912–16). She was chairman of the Child Welfare Committee of the League of Women Voters in 1920, and of the American Citizenship Department of the General Federation of Women's Clubs from 1920 to 1924. She was a trustee of the Leslie Woman's Suffrage Committee as early as 1917. She was a principal influence behind the Chautauqua, New York, Women's Club, and was its president from 1917 to 1938. She staved off bankruptcy at Chautauqua in 1935 by persuading John D. Rockefeller, Jr., to match Chautauqua's fund drive with a $15,185 contribution. In 1936 she also got President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to speak at the Chautauqua Institute's summer camp, thus helping to raise another $13,000.
Mrs. Pennybacker was an associate member of the Democratic National Committee (1919–1920) and through her work with the Democrats met Eleanor Roosevelt in 1924. Their fourteen-year friendship was based on mutual interests in the advancement of women, world peace, and the Democratic party. As an unofficial political analyst for the Roosevelt campaigns, Anna Pennybacker reported to campaign officials the political leanings of many prominent southwesterners. During World War I she was active in the Food Administration of Texas and in 1934 on the Texas Centennial Commission. In 1937 she became the first woman in the history of Houston to give the commencement speech to the city's combined high schools. She traveled the country lecturing on topics such as the status of women and immigrants, Near East relief, the activities of the World Court and the League of Nations (in which she participated as a special correspondent in 1925, 1926, 1927, 1929, and 1931), and her frequent visits to the White House. She was an Episcopalian. At the time of her death in Austin, on February 4, 1938, Mrs. Pennybacker was highly regarded nationwide for her social conscience and reforms.