Difficult History: Feminization and White Supremacy in British Tea Culture

This is an ongoing series on injustices perpetuated through the history and present of Western tea culture.

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This month’s installment of “Difficult History” is one that I have had in mind to write since I first started A Thirst for Empire and read the introduction, in which the author hints at the complex interplay of white supremacy and misogyny that led to the marketing of tea as a feminine commodity. When we think of a cup of tea, particularly in the Western style, we often think of something distinctly feminine, perhaps with aspects of old-fashioned femininity attached to it. We think of it as something our grandmothers would do. We joke about burly men drinking tea. We refer to our Chinese-inspired practice as “kung fu tea” to emphasize its difference from the feminized British afternoon tea image. But the original white drinkers of tea were explorers (colonizers), imperialists, and missionaries, who were largely men. So how did tea go from a drink of explorers to a drink of dainty ladies?

Well, the early seeds of this were likely planted in the 18th century, as tea became more popular among all classes of people in Britain. In 1733, John Waldron wrote in his A Satyr against Tea that rather than curing headaches and improving virility, as was claimed by some medical texts of the 17th and 18th centuries, tea would instead turn men into bed-wetters and made them womanish in their lust for luxury and waste. Later, in 1756, Jonas Hanaway wrote in his An Essay on Tea (a text that was addressed “to two ladies”) that tea had turned the Chinese into “the most effeminate people on the face of the whole earth,” as contrasted with the manly British. While he goes on to bemoan adulturation and lack of quality control of Chinese tea, his ultimate message is that tea-sipping turns you into a womanish person — like those dreadfully effeminate Chinese.

It is important to remember that at this point, the first attempt of the Chinese government to stem the import of opium from British traders, who used it to trade for tea, had been enacted in 1729. The relationship between Britain and China had started to sour and there was some controversy about whether it was wholly patriotic and British to drink a foreign drink like tea. While the British tried to paint the Chinese as savage or backwards, like they had done in other parts of the world they seized and exploited, it seemed that they couldn’t quite make that stick. So instead, they othered the Chinese by calling their refinement and culture feminine. And tried to demonize Chinese tea as both feminizing, thereby making it dangerous to soldiers and other manly British men, and also potentially contaminated with any number of poisons, as the Chinese had a near-monopoly on the production and export of tea at this time (Japanese tea export would not flourish until the 19th century).

Eventually, the British would ignite the Opium Wars in the 19th century and there would be a focused effort to move British tea consumption away from an independent China to the British-controlled India and Ceylon. By the time tea production in India had become industrially viable on the scale needed, in the late 19th century, the marketing had been cemented. British-controlled Indian tea was pure while Chinese tea was foreign and therefore suspect. In fact, a lot of these attitudes persist into the modern day.

But tea was still associated more strongly with the British woman than with men. In the early 19th century, the temperance movement caught on that tea could be used as a social beverage in place of spirits. However, some advocates of temperance and frugality could not get behind tea. In his 1822 Cottage Economy, William Cobbett refers to tea as, among other evils, “an an engenderer of effeminacy and laziness.” Echoing this sentiment, Esther Copley wrote in her Cottage Comforts, recommends instead to use “the common herbs of mint and balm,” which are just as good as tea, and cheaper and not likely to damage one’s strength. Yet, the temperance tea party seems to have caught on, at least in part due to the idea of the supposed civilizing effect of tea, which is somewhat ironic considering it was originally demonized for its association with the feeble and effeminate Chinese.

By 1874, in his book titled Foods, Dr. Edward Smith says “If to be an Englishman is to eat beef, to be an Englishwoman is to drink tea.” And therein is condensed the attitude that seems to have persisted to the modern day. Men eat steak and women sip tea. And it was with that attitude that British dealers of commodity tea that had been produced in colonized South Asia embarked upon their advertising campaigns. But this time, rather than simply using women as the target customer, they also used the white woman as a symbol. A white girl or a white woman was used as the symbol the tea’s purity, thereby taking on yet another layer of the complicated blanket of white supremacy that cloaks Western tea culture to this day.

And that, I suppose, is the upshot of this meandering historical argument. The idea that British tea culture is a feminine interest stems first from the idea of British superiority over the Chinese, due to their effeminate ways, and eventually became a distillation of white supremacist ideas of the purity of white womanhood as women became symbols for the purity of a product controlled by British imperialism over a product from an independent Asian nation. So when we parrot this idea, that tea is feminine, either by buying into it or by trying to subvert it and assume that tea needs to be “made masculine,” we are perpetuating this historical idea that Chinese=womanly=bad. And I say “we” because I am equally guilty of taking this idea of the tea-sipping lady as a given in my own practice. But, knowing better, we can realize that tea is simply a beverage and has no gender, nor do any particular trappings of tea. We can each choose and drink the tea we like the way we like it without having to apologize for being a man who likes mango-tango white tea buds or a woman who likes a Lapsang strong enough to make Winston Churchill blush (not that I’m aware of him ever feeling shame). So romanize your Chinese-inspired tea practice as “kung fu” or pull out your laciest doilies, but try not to see it as the masculine or feminine versions of tea, but rather as a culture that has passed all over the world though centuries of changes, and has landed here, on your tea table.

NB: Nothing to disclose. If you are interested in collaborating, please see my collaboration and contact information.

Sources:

A Thirst for Empire, by Erika Rappaport [link]

Foods, by Edward Smith [link]

An essay on tea, by Jonas Hanaway [link]

Cottage Comforts, by Esther Copley [link]

Cottage Economy, by William Cobbett [link]

2 thoughts on “Difficult History: Feminization and White Supremacy in British Tea Culture

  1. This is a terrific blog post. It includes timely and important information. Thank you.

    Yesterday I attended a virtual Justice Tea Party with 700 other people on zoom. It was hosted by Thistle Farms founder Becca Stevens who wrote the book _The Way of Tea and Justice_.

    I believe it is important for us tea lovers to be honest and informed about these aspects of tea’s history and even tea culture today.

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  2. Thank you for writing this. I have a hard time convincing other men to drink tea because they picture it as a drink for ladies in fancy hats.

    We were reading the little house on the prairie books with my daughter and in the books Pa drinks tea, but on the tv show he drinks coffee. I guess tea wasn’t manly enough for a rugged homesteader. Sigh.

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