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Guest Contributor, Judi Slack

“From now on the league is going to beguile its members and visitors with tea,
have a reception committee to meet all strangers, make them feel at home, and help convert the anti-suffragist visitors.”

(NY Times 7, May 1909)
Such was the determination of the New York Equal Suffrage League.

The dominant narrative of the entire women’s suffrage movement begins and ends with the United States and Britain. Hundreds of thousands of women petitioned, canvassed, lobbied, demonstrated, engaged in mass civil disobedience, went to jail, and engaged in hunger strikes in a seventy-five-year ongoing political and social struggle for the right to votes.

It is impossible to write a history of the Women’s Rights Movements in the UK and the US in which tea is not a common core factor. Tea has had many unusual connections over the centuries, but one of the least obvious perhaps is the fact that towards the end of the 19th century, tearooms provided a safe haven and meeting place for the women suffragists and may have been instrumental in furthering their cause.  The women’s suffrage movement was the struggle for the right of women to vote and run for office and is part of the overall women’s rights movement. In the mid-19th century, women in several countries—most notably, the U.S. and Britain—formed organizations to fight for suffrage.

Taking Tea and Talking Politics - Photo of "Let's Have Tea" sculptures depicting Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass having tea.

Photo of “Let’s Have Tea” sculptures by artist Pepsy M. Kettavong, depicting Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass having tea.

Suffrage organizations, understanding the need to uphold traditional female values as they worked to recruit women from all strata of society, turned to tea socials as one of their primary methods for recruiting new women, disseminating information, and creating social bonds among women that would lead to both emotional and political motivation and then to activism. Tea socials, especially when paired with other social events were excellent venues for recruiting new women to the suffrage cause. For one, they were seen as socially safe: An innocuous cup of tea with friends could hardly be subversive or unfeminine. Women served and drank tea daily.

Serving tea at a suffrage gathering, for instance, made the event seem more like a female social get-together instead of a political rally. Men could look upon these tea socials as non-threatening female gatherings. Other women also saw tea socials as inviting and socially acceptable. Using the guise of tea and discussion, suffrage groups could attract a wider membership—especially among the upper classes—and could decrease male antagonism, since a tea social was simply a female social event not a political stance. In this way the suffrage groups were able to continue their subversive goals of gaining suffrage and equality for women by working from inside the traditional system. The serving of tea consequently increased the legitimacy of female suffrage organizations and allowed them to capitalize on the acceptable social images of the feminine woman.

On May 7th, 1909, an article appeared in the NY Times about including tea as a suffrage recruitment tool. In part it read, “To make the tea bait more attractive, the league has pretty young girl suffragists to pass it around. There are many of the suffragists who do not care for tea, but they take it on principle,” Essentially, the social aspects of serving tea was used to bring new women into meetings, making them feel more comfortable and a part of the group. This would then, theoretically and practically, make these newcomers more receptive to listen to the supporters and to potentially join the cause.

Taking Tea and Talking Politics - Colored illustration (restored) of the cover of a program for the National American Women's Suffrage Association procession from 1913.

Colored illustration (restored) of the cover of a program for the National American Women’s Suffrage Association procession from 1913.

There may be those who scoff at the idea of investigating ‘the suffrage movement and tea,’ but political movements need sheltering spaces in which views can be exchanged. It was only towards the end of the century that middle-class women were able to move, without any hint of social censure, outside of the home and around the streets.  Lining the road to freedom was a new type of business – the tearoom, designed with women in mind. These were places women could visit—either alone or in company—where their presence was not seen as an invitation to molestation and where they could eat and drink without breaching propriety. Emerging suffrage groups discovered they were able to meet in tea rooms, which had become acceptable places for women to go on their own to socialize.

The goal of the tearoom was to create an organizational base for mobilizing militants and inviting sympathizers. They provided a respectable cover for anti-establishment programs and recruitment. The tearoom was core to the Women’s Rights movements of the 1860s-1920s, in the U.S. and British Empire. It formed the base for a political revolution of extraordinary honor, tenacity, and character.

In Votes for Women, published in 1856, Roger Fulford wrote Votes for Women: The Story of a Struggle.

“The spread of independence was helped by the growth of the tea-shop. A few expensive restaurants existed but apart from these there were no places for a quick meal other than … at home or the brisk clatter of the bar parlour. The teashop gave the young … an ideal meeting place, it was an integral part of the women’s liberation movement.”

The tea shop presented women—perhaps in revolt against the stuffiness of the family afternoon tea—an ideal meeting place: It was an integral part of the women’s liberation movement.  And according to Margaret Corbett Ashby, the teashops run by the ABC (Aerated Bread Company) were “an enormous move to freedom.” Once the suffrage campaign got going, the tearooms played a central part.

In the 40-year period between 1880 and 1920, more significant progress was made towards the emancipation and empowerment of women in the US and Great Britain than in any other single period prior to the 1960’s. Women worked from both within the confines of the current political system and outside it, using diverse political methods to achieve their goals. As we’ve seen, the guise of tea (the mainstay of the feminine sphere, being both inviting and socially acceptable) was employed to allow them to capitalize on the acceptable social images of the feminine woman.  Tea and femininity was the answer. Ah… the power of that mighty leaf!

Guest Contributor, Judi Slack

Judi Slack is a certified tea specialist, certified tea professional, certified tea sommelier and certified tea health expert by the World Tea Academy. She teaches various tea related courses at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, a provider of education to individuals 55 and older within an academic environment that recognizes their intellectual interests. She additionally teaches at the Institute for Learning in Retirement at Baldwin Wallace University which also offers senior adults the opportunity to continue learning in a non- competitive academic setting and Lorain County Community College. She also provides informative tea education programs for local libraries.

Ms. Slack organizes the “No Hats Required“ Meetup group, with a current membership of 103. The group has been in existence since 2010 and she has organized more than 360 tea related events for it. Her passionate goal is to educate others on the diverse wonders of tea in general, especially some of the little known but extremely interesting connections to tea.

Photo of Artist Pepsy M. Kettavong’s 2001 “Let’s Have Tea” sculptures is under Public Domain license per the photographer Carol M. Highsmith and is being posted unaltered (source)

Illustration “Woman suffrage procession March 3, 1913” original work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1926. The copyright holder of this restoration file, Adam Cuerden, allows anyone to use it for any purpose, provided that the copyright holder is properly attributed. Redistribution, derivative work, commercial use, and all other use is permitted (source)