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How Tea Helped Women Sell Suffrage

Private-labeled teas helped fund success during the suffragist movement. Today’s activists might learn from their model.
California State Archives

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.

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