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.
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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.