black&white #36: Tea and women, an alliance of empowerment

black&white #36: Tea and women, an alliance of empowerment

4 min steep

In many ways, tea is an overly feminised drink (except, of course, the macho-macho builders brew – strong and full of sugar). Afternoon Teas at hotels or restaurants can often be girly, flowery affairs with quite a lot of pink involved. Over the past decade or so, there’s been a boom in teas or herbal infusions just for women – with brands claiming that their blends can help with period pain or are good for breastfeeding (some with scientific basis, some without). And then there’s the fact that women are just more likely to be regular tea drinkers than men – especially when it comes to herbal or fruit infusions, which tend to be marketed with a feminine audience in mind. 

Women Drinking Tea at The Refreshment Department at the Women's Exhibition 1909

Refreshment department at the Women's Exhibition, Christina Broom, 1909.

But the relationship between tea and women goes beyond these more commercial connections. Towards the end of the 19th century, tearooms started to gain popularity – eventually becoming integral to the women’s suffrage movement. To start, many of them were owned or at least staffed by women; rooms in larger establishments or domestic spaces required little to no financial capital, making them ideal business ventures for entrepreneurial, but legally disempowered women. Coffee houses, on the other hand, which had sprung up 200 years earlier, were entirely masculine spaces – often serving as public centres for lobbying, politics and the media – where women were barred.

Tearooms were also some of the first places to offer public conveniences for women, as public transport advances enabled easier movement into and around towns and cities, and the first department stores sprung. Before that, there were no public facilities available for women. From their very inception, tearooms were always recognised as respectable establishments for women to enjoy a peaceful cup of tea away from the tumult and excitement of busy urban streets. In reality, they were ideal places for women to socialise, discuss current affairs and become politically enlightened. And once the suffrage movement was underway, they became essential, non-male spaces for planning campaigns and demonstrations.

Alan’s Tearoom at 263 Oxford Street was, for example, owned by Marguerite Liddle – but she used her brother Alan as a front man and formal ‘manager’. Alan’s was a major advertiser in Emmeline Pankhurt’s newspaper Vote for Women – and regularly offered the free use of its large function room for members of the Women’s Social Political Union (Emmeline Pankhurst’s radical suffrage organisation). 

The Womens Suffragettes

The first women's right convention, Seneca Falls, New York, 1848.

Around the same time, similar patterns were emerging in New York City and other progressive areas of the US. Activists set up tearooms with the explicit aim of attracting women, hosting political events and raising awareness. Alva Belmont, a member of the wealthy Vanderbuilt family, funded tearooms and events to connect sympathisers, activists, donors and allies – making them major fundraising spaces and social centres of the women’s rights movement. A number of suffrage teas were also initiated, with ‘Votes for Women Tea’ and ‘Equality Tea’ both set up to generate revenue for political campaigns in the run-up to the 1911 election on women’s suffrage. 

However, these movements were overwhelmingly led by white, middle-class women in the UK and America. The relationship between tea and women from global south communities is a different story. Tea, like many other agricultural industries, relies on a female workforce. But even though women make up the majority of tea pickers and farmers in a number of countries, they are often underrepresented at senior managerial levels. They are also vulnerable to extreme poverty, poor levels of educational attainment, the effects of climate change, and bad, even dangerous, working conditions. 

A Group of All Female Hmong Tea Pickers

Van Chan’s female-only workforce picking tea.

At the same time, sustainable and ethical tea production can contribute to the empowerment of women – and is one of the reasons why the UN designated the 21 May each year as International Tea Day. For example, the Van Chan Co-operative, which produces the green tea in Canton Moroccan Mint and the black tea in Canton Wild Chai, is run entirely by women. The all-female workforce benefits from fair wages and a clean work environment, with all members receiving sick leave, health insurance and paid holiday. 

Tea was an integral part of the women’s suffrage movement in the West over a hundred years ago – and now has the immense potential to improve the lives of women from tea-producing countries all over the world. We just need to change an exploitative tea industry to an empowering one.

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