How Tea Helped Women Sell Suffrage

Private-labeled teas helped fund success during the suffragist movement. Today’s activists might learn from their model. An Object Lesson.

Suffragettes on a background of pussy hats and teacups
TandaV / Unal Ozmen / Everett Historical / Shutterstock Arsh Raziuddin / The Atlantic

Access to daily necessities has long been a priority for social-reform movements. As tea had been on British shopping lists since at least the early 17th century, Boston turned its harbor into a tea party to protest a tax on the quotidian beverage while lacking the ability to vote on that tax.

When it came time for women to get the vote, tea played a role, too. Women such as the wealthy Alva Vanderbilt-Belmont held “suffrage teas,” where support for the cause was proclaimed. The tea parties also served as fund-raisers, a practice that extended to the teas themselves.

In California, suffragist women showed how both tea and the national movement of women’s suffrage could be democratized at the state level. Two suffrage teas generated revenue for political organizing in the run-up to the 1911 election on women’s suffrage. Equality Tea sprang up in Northern California and spread throughout the state. In Southern California, Nancy Tuttle Craig used her position as one of the only female grocers in the state to package a “Votes for Women” tea.

Both of these teas proved that support for women’s expanded role in politics permeated the electorate. For California women, a tea wasn’t a party that meant one had been anointed to run—it was a commodity that meant that women’s votes were commercially and politically viable. As new, urgent women’s causes proliferate, the suffragettes’ lesson might be worth revisiting today.

By the late 19th century, the suffragette cause had stalled in the Golden State. San Francisco tried and failed to elect women to the school board in 1886. They had run on a reform ticket, and a Democratic sweep meant that all reform candidates lost. San Francisco in particular remained anti-suffrage in 1896, when the state voted on the matter. That same year, Utah and Idaho joined Wyoming (1890) and Colorado (1893) in allowing women to vote.

California Republicans had initially supported suffrage in the 1896 election, just as they had in 1894. But as populists and Democrats coalesced to support William Jennings Bryan, state Republicans dropped their support for suffrage to compete against the Democratic threat. At the same time, the liquor lobby ran a successful campaign to get prohibition ordinances overturned, undoing the work of earlier women reformers. The defeat of women’s suffrage in San Francisco’s precinct doomed the statewide effort.

It took a decade and a half for California women to prove that they had a broad base of support to gain the right to vote in state elections. The 1911 vote was hard-fought. Suffrage leagues and reform-minded women organized feverishly, but women’s suffrage still did not pass in San Francisco. This time, the rest of the state made up the difference. Tea smoothed over the gap between San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego in supporting women’s suffrage.

Equality Tea was based in Northern California. Distributed by the Woman’s Suffrage Party, it spread through the state. San Francisco storerooms served the tea in tearooms decorated with a Chinese theme. Suffrage-minded consumers could purchase Equality Tea in half-pound, whole-pound, and five-pound boxes. Varieties included Ceylon, English breakfast, young hyson, gunpowder, and oolong. Some suffrage organizations, like the Club Women’s Franchise League, served Equality Tea at their headquarters in the St. Francis Hotel on Saturday afternoons.

However, Equality Tea was also sold at regional fairs and by mail order. Ads appeared in venues ranging from local newspapers to medical journals. Some grocers carried the tea, and there were women who refused to pay their grocery bills if their grocer did not carry Equality Tea. The ability to order by mail assured that the tea’s purveyors did not discriminate against rural or lower-class residents, groups of the population with stronger support for women’s suffrage.

Tea became a central feature of the political strategy of San Francisco suffragists. On August 22, 1911, The San Francisco Call reported that the Votes for Women club had prepared a “suffrage special” train that would carry feminist speakers to the state fair in order to be heard by people from all parts of the state. The train bore the message Eighth amendment, suffrage special, votes for women, drink equality tea. (The sign referred to the proposed amendment to the California Constitution.) By emphasizing tea on the suffrage train, the Votes for Women club focused on how accessible the basic civic right could be. The locomotive advertising signaled that women’s suffrage was a movement modern enough to spur consumers to adopt an equality-branded tea.

Votes-for-Women Tea, meanwhile, sprang up in Los Angeles. According to the proceedings of the main suffrage organization, National American Woman Suffrage Association (or NAWSA, founded by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton), the tea was a publicity tactic that turned out to be as big as the 93,000 buttons and 13,000 pennants suffragists distributed across Los Angeles. Proceeds from the tea supported the campaign for suffrage in Southern California. It was recommended as a “novelty” strategy for other suffrage groups to follow.

Mrs. R. L. Craig spearheaded the tea. She headed one of the largest grocery firms in California, and at the time she was the only female member of the National Wholesale Grocers’ Association. She had taken over R. L. Craig & Company following her husband’s death, and she used her position to be involved in civic affairs. She was a staunch supporter of women’s rights, a former teacher educated in Watsonville public schools and the State Normal School of San Jose.

According to the Los Angeles Herald, several leading grocers already carried the tea by August 1911, and more were following suit. The tea could also be ordered at the Van Nuys Hotel, the Lankershim café, and the Pig ’n Whistle café. However, the Herald relayed that “the Copper Kettle and the Hotel Angelus have refused absolutely to consider the possibility of serving this drink to patrons.” Fortunately for thwarted suffragists, California men and women could still donate the money they would have spent on the tea to the “Self-Denial Week” fundraiser for women’s suffrage in the state.

In addition to championing women’s right to vote with tea, Craig ran for office herself in the same year that women won the vote in California. Voters twice elected her to the Los Angeles Board of Education by a significant majority. Craig was able to achieve a trifecta by being an actual teacher who could represent business interests and pioneer new roles for women. The tea supported all women, but it indirectly supported her own venture into politics as a woman.

Tea helped make California the sixth state to give women the vote in 1911. California had seconded Washington’s 1910 revival of the women’s suffrage movement. Oregon (1912), Kansas (1912), Arizona (1912), Illinois (1913), Montana (1914), and Nevada (1914) kept the trend of giving the vote to women going. Tea and tea parties also remained in fashion. In 1934, the first woman cabinet member, Frances Perkins, was said to have gotten the idea of taxation as a revenue base for Social Security at a tea.

The idea of literally buying into feminism—with the wallet as much as the mind—has coursed under the surface of contemporary American culture for the past few decades. Many of the women behind the recent #WhyIDidntReport, #YesAllWomen, #MeToo, and #BelieveWomen hashtags on Twitter came of age going to Lilith Fair concerts and reading Sassy magazine in the 1990s. By listening to bands ranging from the Dixie Chicks to the Indigo Girls and devouring Bust and Ms., women pumped financial stability into socially conscious forms of entertainment.

In the past few years, perhaps in the wake of the multinational corporation’s triumph over the coffeehouse and small-venue music businesses of the 1990s, women activists have gone for currency-free forms of organizing. With the 2017 Women’s March on Washington, the Pussyhat Project was born. Women in the United States and around the world downloaded knitting patterns and crafted their own head apparel for various marches and demonstrations. The project embraced its DIY ethos, celebrating women’s ability to self-organize through coordinated volunteerism.

But decoupling feminism from economics comes with consequences. There are some benefits: Women can resist getting transformed into a market for pink-washed products hawked for limited political benefit. But there are also downsides. The Pussyhat Project was successful, yet plagued by its own sustainability, a problem that persists at a broader scale. And given the persistent wage gap between men and women (and particularly minority women), one wonders if movements circulating American dollars to socially conscious causes might not be ripe for a comeback. While there are well-known brands such as Newman’s Own that support charities, the concept of an equality tea that promotes a specific social outcome like women’s suffrage does not have a precise parallel today. That might pose a problem: It’s difficult for activism to persist if it cannot be sustained—especially when that sustenance becomes exhausting, stretching over years. Whether it’s teas or knit hats or something else entirely, social-justice products offer an opportunity worth letting steep anew today.