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Brewing mutiny in a cup of tea

Tea’s power lies in its ordinariness, and if nothing else, tea offers sustenance to those fighting the good fight

A tea seller at West Bengal’s Gangasagar island.
A tea seller at West Bengal’s Gangasagar island. (Photo: Getty Images)

Join us for tea," reads a placard held by a woman at Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh. It’s an invitation to the prime minister to come and talk to the protesting women, to hear their concerns. Tea here connotes dialogue, not accusation, conversation, not a fight. Tea and food have always been women’s allies, in good times and bad. Tea’s power lies in its ordinariness, and if nothing else, tea offers sustenance to those fighting the good fight.

Tea has often figured in political history. There’s the Boston Tea Party of 1773, that pivotal event leading to the American war of independence. The Sons of Liberty, fighting against the British, chose to have their say by boarding the ships docked in Boston’s harbour and dumping the entire load of tea into the sea. The economic loss was severe—three shiploads of tea—but nobody was hurt, no damage done to the ships, and nothing else was taken or stolen. In fact, after dumping the tea, the rebels swept the decks, made sure everything was in order, and left.

But the fight in which tea took centre stage was the feminist movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Women had few liberties but the one they were fighting for was equal voting rights. How would they fight, however, if they were not even allowed to go out for a meal, unchaperoned by a man?!

Enterprising women opened spare rooms in their houses as tea rooms, serving tea and food. These spaces were inherently feminine and therefore considered safe for women. Women came in droves, and tearooms became the centre of the women’s suffragette movement. The Historic England website says, “In early 20th century Britain, tearooms were a magnet for women seeking emancipation, and tea was a class leveller uniting women across the social spectrum."

The same fight was taking place in the US. “Pink teas" may sound frivolous but were serious political gatherings. In Boston, prominent socialite and suffragist Alva Vanderbilt Belmont built a Chinese tea house on her lawns, where she would organize “suffrage teas". In California, Equality Tea was the suffragette’s brand, available in English Breakfast, Ceylon, Gunpowder Green, Hyson and Oolong. In Los Angeles, Mrs R.L. Craig marketed the Votes-for-Women tea to raise money for the cause. The fight was won for unconditional voting rights, in 1920 in the US and 1928 in the UK.

Tea has since entered art galleries as a symbol of dissent, as seen in the work of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. His A Ton Of Tea is a ton of pu’er (Chinese fermented tea) compressed into a large cube, while Teahouse is made of compressed pu’er set on a lawn of loose tea. By taking something so ubiquitous as tea, and inherently Chinese, he has set out to make a political statement. It has been part of advertising campaigns, as seen in India in 2008, when a popular brand of Indian tea ran a campaign calling on people to cast their vote responsibly.

When called upon, tea has often played the catalyst—that everyday drink that has wielded the power of a wake-up call.


The Trouble With Tea by Jane T. Merritt and Heroines Of Tea by Peter G.W. Keen

Tea Nanny is a weekly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry.

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