Tea has been caught in the crossfire of a battle that is ostensibly between men and women for hundreds of years now.
Why bother, you might ask? You might say “Don’t we have gender equality now? Not only for men and women, but also every variation of gender and sexuality therein. It’s it, like, the law and everything”.
Well, here’s a photo I snapped from the TV this week. It shows a young man by the name of Jack Bobridge who was clever enough to win a stage of a bicycle race in my hometown of Adelaide.
And it shows two attractive young women, provided for the purposes of kissing his cheeks for the big photo opportunity.
Really? This is 2015? Even The Sun, the infamously sexist British newspaper has announced this week that the women they objectify on page 3 will no longer be topless. It’s start, I guess.
Of course, there’s more to it than attractiveness and showing some skin. The world is full of beautiful paintings of women (and men, though that’s not the point) and they all have one characteristic – they offer a multi-dimensional array of expression that The Sun could never have hoped to equal with its basic premise, which is “Mandy is a 36DD cup, here’s photographic proof.”
Returning to professional cycling, which is incredibly testosterone-fuelled (some competitors have actually been identified as injecting testosterone), I’m also going to note that it seems to often be identified with a beverage: coffee. It’s not coffee’s fault, but rather the attitude.
If you can ride a bike for a stupid amount of kilometres and drink a three shot latte, you must be a man. If you are the best in the world at it, you get the double kiss photo to prove your superiority to other men. The women are merely an indicator; a status symbol.
So, let’s turn to what women are doing about it, and where tea is involved. We’ll start in 1674, with an excerpt from the infamous petition against coffeehouses, which served coffee, tea and hot chocolate, and where men tended to hang out with other men:
“For besides, we have reason to apprehend and grow Jealous, That Men by frequenting these Stygian Tap-houses will usurp on our Prerogative of tattling, and soon learn to exceed us in Talkativeness: a Quality wherein our Sex has ever Claimed preheminence: For here like so many Frogs in apuddle, they sup muddy water, and murmur insignificant notes till half a dozen of them out-babble an equal number of us at a Gossipping, talking all at once in Confusion, and running from point to point as insensibly, and swiftly, as ever the Ingenous Pole-wheel could run divisions on the Base-viol; yet in all their prattle every one abounds in his own sense, as stiffly as a Quaker at the late Barbican Dispute, and submits to the Reasons of no othre mortal: so that there being neitherModerator nor Rules observ’d, you mas as soon fill a Quart pot with Syllogismes, as profit by their Discourses”
There was another landmark instance of tea being involved in equality, and it was by women, but the issue was colonial rights, not gender equality. It was the boycott of British Goods, by women, and the famous Tea Party in North Carolina:
“As we cannot be indifferent on any occasion that appears nearly to affect the peace and happiness of our country, and as it has been thought necessary, for the public good, to enter into several particular resolves by a meeting of Members deputed from the whole Province, it is a duty which we owe, not only to our near and dear connections who have concurred in them, but to ourselves who are essentially interested in their welfare, to do every thing as far as lies in our power to testify our sincere adherence to the same; and we do therefore accordingly subscribe this paper, as a witness of our fixed intention and solemn determination to do so.”
Whilst it was the Tea Tax Act that precipitated this, tea was not the major issue, although it’s been maligned ever since in certain quarters.
Again, tea was used as a powerful symbol of an idea, and we still speak of another event as “the Boston Tea Party” today, although that term was not created until decades after the event it describes.
So at first, tea was part of the problem. It was mainly drunk by men (brewing it at home was not common or affordable back then) and was part of a system of exclusion of women.
How things changed. By the intercession of people such as Thomas Twinning, a market was created for women to buy tea (or have their servants do it) and brew it at home (or have their servants do it) and serve it to their friends (or have their servants do it).
The next innovations were tea rooms, but it was in tea gardens where men and women could stroll, converse, take tea and pay court to each other that we see some stirrings of equality.
By this time, in the mid to late 1800s, tea was no longer the enemy of women, but a neutral if reliable ally.
This changes with the temperance movement.
For much of human history, alcohol was a survival mechanism. Ales and wines protected against drinking the polluted city drinking water, and in many cases provided much-needed calories.
But as both sanitation and water quality improved, sugar became affordable and beverages made from boiling water became readily available, there was a reluctance to leave them behind.
But by the mid 1800s, pubs were in the same position as coffeehouses two hundred years earlier. In the 1600s men were avoiding going home to wine, ale and gin and spending their money and time drinking tea, coffee and chocolate with other men. By the time of the first stirrings of temperance in the 1820s, men were eschewing the tea, coffee and chocolate of home for the ale, wine and gin of pubs and spending their money there, drinking with other men.
It wasn’t just women leading the temperance movement, religion had a place. Early American temperance was more about not drinking whiskey on the Sabbath, and in 1847 the Rev Jabez Tunnicliff started preaching to children in Leeds, UK, on the evils of drink, eventually founding Band of Hope, a charity dedicated to rescuing young people from alcoholism. (It survives today as the drug and alcohol charity Hope.)
But with the exception of suffrage, few political movements are as identified with women as temperance. Indeed, many of the suffragettes learnt their craft as protesters for temperance, and its extreme cousin, the teetotal movement.
We often see in film, scheming women scheming over a cup of tea. It has become a signal of the female who takes charge, who has power or at least wants it. The Queen drinks it, and who’d ever argue with Her Majesty? No-one with any brains. She may no longer have the option of “Off with his head!” literally, but I think she’d be able to do it figuratively any day of the week.
Head into any really expensive tea room, and there’s a fair gender balance. But find a mid level one, putting on a nice afternoon tea, and it’s packed to the rafters with women. I’ve been the only male (other that serving staff) in a room of a few dozen tea drinkers on more than one occasion.
You have to wonder what it is all those women are plotting and scheming over tea and scones. The downfall of men? Peace on Earth? Theoretical Physics? Whatever happened to Corey Hart? Culottes vs Slacks? The enduring legacy of Lord Petersham and the overcoat he invented?
Probably all this and more. Although there’s one thing I’ve never overheard in a tea shop.
I’ve never heard women discussing their life’s ambition to kiss a sweaty, Lycra-clad, testosterone-fuelled cyclist.