Heroines of Tea: new book by Peter Keen


Heroines of Tea: just published


My new book, Heroines of Tea, is not “about” tea but the impacts of women through tea on major areas of society, politics, reform, and the arts. It is impossible to get a complete picture of the long struggle for Women’s Rights without understanding just how powerful a weapon tea was. For tea lovers, most of the cherished stories of tea are twaddle that writes women out of history — tea bags, flavored teas and iced tea are women’s innovations credited to men.

Here are three snippets from the book, one on George Washington’s tea supplier, Rebecca Steele, and another on one of the most underestimated wives of a US President, who like Dolly Madison used tea as a force for molding rather than following events. In the case of Louisa Adams, she turned tea events into a caucus and won for her husband the most contentious Presidential election in history.

Tea in the White House

George and Martha Washington were tea lovers, as were Jefferson, John and Abigail Adams, the Madisons and Monroes. Activist Presidential wives used it powerful for political action.

Dolley Madison was one of the most effective political influencers of her time. Her key contribution was to systematically create social spaces where men and women in the very contentious and vicious environment of the early Republic could mix, gossip, make deals and get to know each other outside the public arena.

In a nice turn of phrase, her biographer, Catherine Algron, captures her achievement: If James Madison and his colleagues “dreamed of and drafted the plan for ‘The Grand Federal Edifice,’ Dolley built it brick by brick. One cup of tea, one favor, one connection at a time.”

Tea and Misogyny

The third snippet summarizes the downside of the historical link in Europe and North America between tea and women. Tea was seen  by many reactionaries as a source of addiction, weakness and irresponsibility. A near epidemic of insanity among Irish women tea drinkers in the 1880s led to government investigation, Church condemnation of the women and press vilification. But this was not the madness of addiction; it was the insanity of malnutrition. The women of Ireland after the Great Famine that almost halved the population struggled to feed their families, with the husband getting as much sustenance as possible to be able to handle laboring work. The childrens’ health came next in priority. And the women last.

A theme of Heroines of Tea is that tea is far more important and impactful in the History of Poverty and social reform than the Royal high tea and cake puffery. For a century, the daily diet of a larger graction of the UK population was “a cup and two slices” — tea and bred and margarine. In the US and Britain, many of the Heroines of tea led the social reforms that alleviated but did not eliminate this.


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