Tempest from a Teapot: It’s how the Women’s Rights Movement was born!

27605v.jpg Library of Congress Afternoon Tea by Albert Levering 1910

“Afternoon Tea” by Albert Levering 1910

March is Women’s History Month! With election season at a rolling boil and a female Presidential candidate currently the Democratic front-runner, it may interest you to know that American women’s right to vote was made possible by a few ladies who gathered for tea. That’s right. What’s more, that cuppa you enjoyed today, which is International Women’s Day, is actually steeped in some pretty radical traditions.

The class struggles of 18th century America and Europe gathered steam in tea and coffeehouses, infusing common folk with the desire for a better standard of living. It rattled the upper crust that, firstly, these newfangled, casual and convenient gathering places allowed all sorts to (gasps!) mix in “open society,” and second, that the lower classes had developed a taste for tea—a pricy and refined beverage intended for their betters. Then you had these young women, leaving perfectly good tea and biscuits untouched at home, rejecting the protective bosom of family to break bread amongst outsiders spreading nontraditional beliefs. Domestic neglect, lazy frivolity and deportment “unworthy of Christians” were bound to ensue. Ahem! What about your needlework, ladies???  Idle hands and all that… 

By the late 19th century, tea time was an established ritual among American women, and tea parties gave them a safe space to pour out their grievances. In July 1848, Jane Hunt hosted Lucretia Mott, Martha Wright, Mary Ann McClintock and Elizabeth Cady Stanton at her home in Waterloo, New York. “I poured out, that day, the torrent of my long-accumulating discontent,” Stanton remembered, “with such vehemence and indignation that I stirred myself, as well as the rest of the party, to do and dare anything.”

Tea-sipping suffragettes stirred up trouble on both sides of the Atlantic

Whelp, this hot little hen session resulted in the first-ever Women’s Rights Convention later that month. More than 300 people attended the famed Seneca Falls Convention. Stanton (who’d been reading her Congressman daddy’s law books in her spare time, had deleted the common promise to “obey” from her wedding vows and attended London’s Anti Slavery Convention while on her honeymoon) presented a “Declaration of Sentiments and Grievances,” modeled after the Declaration of Independence.

Here’s what had the ladies steaming:

  •  Women had few options for working outside the home, and were paid less than men for the same work.

  •  Once married, they had no legal rights separate from their husbands, who had legal power over them. They could no longer own property.

  • Women were infantilized by their husbands, who had the legal right to spank them, or to lock them in a room without supper.

  • They had to follow the laws, but couldn’t vote

  •  Divorce and child custody laws benefitted men and disenfranchised their ex-wives.

  •  Women had to pay property taxes but had no say in how their dollars were used.

  • Women were barred from attending college.

  • Women held little power in church affairs and were relegated to supporting male leaders.

This mahogany tea table was used on July 16, 1848, to compose the first draft of the Declaration of Sentiments.

Aside from Stanton’s passionate pleas for equal treatment as citizens, the most charismatic speaker at the Convention was former slave, abolitionist and ally Frederick Douglass, one of the few men in attendance. Thanks to the suffragists’ enduring struggles, in 1920 Congress ratified the 19th amendment, giving women of all races the right to vote on August 18th (my birthday, yay!). While African American men had been given the vote in 1869, suppression of the Black vote and disenfranchisement would continue for generations into the present day, and lead to the fight to pass the Voting Rights Act in 1965. “We the Teaple” have a proud history of stirring up trouble. As you steep and sip your elixir of choice today, think about what revolutionary changes you’re helping to brew.

first wave statue nps.gov
First Wave exhibit Women’s Rights National Historical Site, Seneca Falls, New York

You can read more about tea’s subversive past here And about the Seneca Falls Convention  here.