The history of women and tea.

The Forgotten Feminine Tale of Tea

Tea. What comes to mind when you read that word? Perhaps a pretty pink teapot? A posh Brit’s poised pinky at a Jane Austen-era tea party? Delicate scones and itty bitty sandwiches lined up on an afternoon tea tray? Or everyone’s favourite singing chipped teacup? I think we can all agree that tea’s image in popular culture is rather girly. Tea does not evoke images of machismo, that’s for sure.  But when did this feminine perception of tea begin? And why? This got me thinking: could there be more to this? What is the link between the history of women and tea?

As it turns out, since the ancient Chinese beverage was introduced to Western society, it has constantly been associated with us ladies. (And this is not to mention the important role that women played in the history of tea in the Eastern world, but that’s a whole other equally-interesting story for another day.) From the beverage’s introduction to England in the 17th century to the various connections between tea and the modern women’s movement, tea and woman seem to go hand in hand. There are countless intriguing tidbits that will make you stop, think, and hopefully smile next time you take a sip of your cuppa. So, read on for a brief introduction to the forgotten history of women and tea.

5 Key Moments in the History of Women and Tea

1. Time Before Tea

Now, contrary to popular opinion, the British have not been drinking tea since the beginning of time. While tea has become distinctly associated with British sensibilities and culture, they discovered tea rather late in the game. In fact, until the Early Modern period, Europeans were restricted to wine and ale to satiate their thirst—which gives credence to all the rowdy and ridiculous scenes in popular screen adaptations from the Medieval and Renaissance eras, if you ask me.

The reason for this is that prior to modern filtration systems, water was definitely not something you wanted to drink if you wanted to stay healthy and, well, alive.  And smoothies and soda were not a thing. But when the ages of exploration and imperialism dawned, Europeans were introduced to countless new foods, fashions, flora and fauna, and a mass movement of cultural exchange began. And you can read all about this phenomenon in my essay on the topic here, so lets get back to the history of women and tea.

2. A Queenly Introduction

In 1662, a Portuguese princess named Catherine of Braganza (1638-1705) arrived in England to marry the newly restored King Charles II. And because she was a princess of one of the most powerful European empires of the day, her dowry came with more than just some linens and a coin purse. She brought new territories, trade routes, as well as a chest of Chinese tea with her. The new Queen of England, Scotland, and Ireland began to serve the drink at court and it quickly became the fashionable beverage of choice for high society. Of course, at this point tea was far too expensive to be available for the masses, but Catherine had given England its first taste for the beverage that it would soon fall head over heals for.

3. The Domestication of Tea

As we saw with Catherine’s introduction of tea into English society, it was a beverage she drank in her courtly residences. And the domestication of tea only continued as time went on. Surprisingly, when tea, hot chocolate, and coffee were introduced to Early Modern England, it was actually coffee that first became popular. By the 17th century coffee houses began appearing across the country. And by the 18th century these venues became hotspots of Enlightenment thought and conversation. Swarms of gentlemen came to chat over a cup of coffee and peruse the latest newspaper (you can read all about that here). The problem is, women were denied entry to these establishments. After all, coffee houses were part of the “public” sphere, and God forbid we have the fairer sex engage in political prattle.

So instead, women started to serve tea at home in their drawing rooms. And I sure am glad that they did. As this routine developed, we start to recognize the tea party of the modern age (as well as just drinking tea at home, which I for one do many, many a time per day). And as tea grew in popularity, all the tools we now associate with the beverage began to emerge in the market: specific furniture such as tea tables and chairs, special Chinese porcelain tea cups, plates, tea caddy, tea pot, tea chests, and the list goes on.

4. Teatime Traditions

The aristocratic penchant for tea continued, and by the 1800s, Anna, Duchess of Bedford, decided to fight the “sinking feeling” that she got in the afternoon with a cup of tea and a slice of cake. And so the tradition of afternoon tea was born. Meanwhile, the tea party tradition that had begun to develop as a counterpart to the male coffeehouse gatherings continued to become an important part of British social life. These gatherings gave middle-class women an opportunity for social interaction and companionship, as they invited their girlfriends over for tea and tattle.

Tea also was served at pleasure gardens such as at Ranelagh, Marylebone, and Bermondsey Spa, where men, children, and women could all gather for a tea and talk.  Furthermore, tea shops began to emergence in the late 19th century. These tea shops (basically, they were cafés that served tea) could be frequented by women and men, allowing women a spot in the public sphere that she could spend time in. These tea shops could even be run by women, which offered ladies an entrepreneurial opportunity. And by this time, the cost of tea had decreased and middle-class women began to imitate the upperclass trendsetters, while the working class developed their own teatime tradition of “tea breaks” at work.

5. Tea Party Politics

The American Revolution was not the only political movement to be sparked by a tea party. As the women’s movement of the 19th century dawned, many of the great movers and shakers met over tea at respectable tea houses. Social and charitable organizations were launched by women over tea.  Initiatives such as the Women’s Institute and the Girl Guides were thought up over tea. And perhaps most importantly, suffrage was strategized over tea.  Suffrage fundraisers and meetings were hosted at tea shops and tea houses. Indeed, in 1848 Lucretia Mott, Martha Wright, Mary Ann McClintock, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Jane Hunt got together for a  cup of tea in upstate New York. They got to talking, and thought: what if we were to hold a convention to discuss the rights of women? And so the idea for the Seneca Falls Convention (the first women’s rights convention, which kicked off the American feminist movement) was sparked. They drafted the famous “Declaration of Sentiments,” a document mirroring the “Declaration of Independence,” and this activity launched a series of other women’s rights conventions that followed.

Even teaware was created featuring suffrage logos and slogans. For example, Sylvia Pankhurst (the daughter of the iconic Emmeline Pankhurst) designed tea sets for the WSPU in the UK in the first decade of the 20th century. And in 1914, Alva Vanderbilt Belmont commissioned a teapot with “votes for women” inscribed on it for her “Conference for Great Women.” She followed this up with a tea party at her mansion to raise funds and fervour for the suffrage movement.

By 1912-13, there was such a close association between the women’s movement and tea that the Lipton Tea Company decided to run an ad campaign in The Woman Voter. The ad, or poem, rather—how I wish 21st century ads were written in stanzas!—described ladies sitting around the table drinking Lipton’s Tea while discussing the question of the vote for women:

Dear Ladies: If you’d win the men / ‘Round to your way of thinking / Discuss the question now and then. / Across the table drinking / Lipton’s Tea.

And so there you have it. Since tea was introduced to the Western world, the beverage has been characterized as feminine. And for good reason, it turns out.

Related post: Sex, Secrets and Sanitation in the Victorian World You Never Knew

Want to learn more about the history of women and tea? Try one of these books: 

Tea: A History of the Drink That Changed the World by John C Griffiths. Buy it on Amazon here.

Tea: A Global History (Edible) by Helen Saberi. Buy it on Amazon here.

A Social History of Tea: Tea’s Influence on Commerce, Culture & Community by Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson. Buy it on Amazon here.

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The history of women and tea.







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