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? Gift baskets stuffed with loose-leaf tea all tied up with a satin ribbon?
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 these feminine connotations for tea begin? And why?
Ever since the ancient Chinese beverage was introduced to the English-speaking Western society, it has constantly been associated with us ladies. (The equally interesting role played by women in the history of tea in the Eastern world is a story for another day.) From the beverage’s introduction to England in the seventeenth century to the various connections between tea and the modern women’s movement, tea and women seem to go hand in hand. There are countless intriguing tidbits to the story. So read on for a brief introduction to the forgotten history of women and tea that will make you stop, think, and hopefully smile next time you take a sip of your cuppa.
01. Time before tea
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 relatively restricted to wine and ale to satiate their thirst—which does give some credence to all the rowdy and ridiculous scenes in popular screen adaptations set in the medieval and Renaissance eras!
The reason for this is that before modern filtration systems, water was not something you wanted to drink if you wanted to stay healthy (and, well, alive). 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.
02. A queenly introduction
In 1662, a Portuguese princess named Catherine of Braganza 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, she brought new territories, trade routes, and a chest of Chinese tea with her. Though the beverage had been served before, it did not become truly popular until her arrival. The new queen of England, Wales, 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 heels for.
03. The domestication of tea
Catherine introduced tea into English society as a beverage to drink in 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 became popular first. By the mid-seventeenth century, coffee houses began appearing across the country. And, by the eighteenth century, these venues were hotspots of Enlightenment thought and conversation. Swarms of gentlemen came to chat over a cup of coffee and peruse the latest newspaper. The problem is, women were denied entry to these establishments. After all, coffee houses were part of the “public” sphere, and heaven forfend that the fairer sex engage in political prattle.
So, instead, women started to serve tea at home in their drawing rooms. This routine began to develop into the tea party of the modern age (as well as plain old tea-drinking at home, which I, for one, do many times per day). 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 teacups, teapots, tea chests—and the list goes on.
04. 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 thus 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 be an important part of British social life. These gatherings gave middle-class women an opportunity for social interaction and companionship.
Tea also was served at pleasure gardens such as at Ranelagh, Marylebone, and Bermondsey Spa, where men, children, and women could all gather for tea and talk. Furthermore, tea shops began to emerge in the late nineteenth century. These tea shops (basically, cafés that served tea) could be frequented by men and women, allowing women a space in the public sphere. These tea rooms could even be run by women, a role that offered ladies an entrepreneurial opportunity. By this time, the cost of tea had decreased, and middle-class women began to imitate the upper-class trendsetters as the working class developed their own teatime tradition of “tea breaks” at work.
05. Tea party politics
The American Revolution was not the only political movement to be sparked by a tea party. As the women’s suffrage movement of the nineteenth and twentieth century dawned, many of the great movers and shakers met over tea at respectable tea houses. Social and charitable initiatives were launched by women over tea. Organizations 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) 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.
By 1912, 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.
Since tea was introduced to the English-speaking world, the beverage has been characterized as feminine. And for good reason, it turns out.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article originally appeared on the author's personal blog, which has since been removed from the web.