Pink Tea and Women’s Rights
Submitted by the Minden Hills Museum
Published July 19, 2018
Historically, gatherings known as “pink teas” were occasions for women to organize and strategize in their pursuit of women’s rights. These gatherings were often executed in ultra-feminine guise, which hid behind such established female frivolities as frilly decorations, pink doilies, and rose-coloured tea. Men who thought these teas too feminine to attend generally avoided these gatherings.
A pink tea offered the disguise of a frivolous social affair, but in reality it was an occasion to accommodate women whose disapproving husbands, relatives or peers did not want them engaging in politics.
When women were campaigning for the right to vote in the early 1900s, their suffrage meetings were frequently disrupted by angry opponents. Many women were forbidden by their husbands and fathers to attend these meetings, and others simply did not have the confidence to do so because of the strong, chaotic opposition.
How was pink tea made? Kashmiri tea or pink tea, is a traditional beverage from Kashmir, made with special tea leaves salt and milk, and is usually brewed in a samovar. A cup of pink tea is often accompanied by nuts and dried fruit. A pinch of baking soda gives it the pink colour. The pink tea tradition was most likely started by the English women of husbands who were serving in the Indian subcontinent during the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the tradition was eventually transported to the rest of what was then the British Empire, including Canada.
Why tea? For women, their political movements needed sheltered spaces in which views could be exchanged. During the 19th century women attended hundreds of suffrage meetings in Britain’s town halls and assembly halls. There were few places outside the home in which they could congregate informally. It was only towards the end of the century that middle-class women were able to move, without any vestige of social censure, out of the home and in the streets. This, consequently, caused a new type of business – the café, tea room or restaurant designed with women in mind. These were places women could visit – either alone or in company – where their presence was not seen as an invitation to harassment and where they could eat and drink without breaching propriety.
In Ontario, widening public debate about suffrage and women’s rights produced the Toronto Women’s Literary Club, a group devoted to higher education and intellectual development as well as to the physical welfare and employment conditions of women workers. To the TWLC, extending the vote to women would help to improve women’s safety as well as their chances of employment and education. The TWLC was created in 1876–77 by Dr. Emily Howard Stowe, one of Canada’s first female doctors; she and her daughter, Dr. Augusta Stowe-Gullen, spearheaded Ontario’s suffrage campaign for 40 years. In 1883, TWLC became the Toronto Women’s Suffrage Association, which in 1889 became the Dominion Women’s Enfranchisement Association. From the 1880s on, many Ontario unionists and socialists, including Knights of Labor journalist Thomas Phillips Thompson, also endorsed women’s suffrage.
Suffragists were not a homogeneous group; nor did they focus only on suffrage. Campaigns also called for improved public health, equality in employment and education, social assistance and condemnation of violence.
Besides the colour pink for tea, yellow, the colour of gold, and the symbol of wisdom in the East, was the badge of equal suffragists all over Canada and U.S., and was used for decorations at all meetings of the hall. Some of the mottos used were “Canada’s Daughters Should be Free,” “No Sex in Citizenship,” “Women are half the People,” and “Woman, Man’s Equal.”
Teas have played a significant role in the progression of women’s rights. After winning the right to vote, the pink teas continued with the Famous Five. The five women, Emily Murphy, Irene Marryat Parlby, Nellie Mooney McClung, Louise Crummy McKinney and Henrietta Muir Edwards, created a petition seeking to have women legally considered “persons” so that they could be appointed to the Senate. This was passed in Oct. 18, 1929.
This article is part of an ongoing campaign to build awareness about the struggles and progress of women’s rights. 2018 marks the 100th anniversary for women’s right to vote federally. The Minden Hills Museum will be hosting A Celebration of Women’s Voting Rights on Saturday, Sept. 15 starting at 12 p.m. If you would like to be a part of this event please contact Laurie Carmount at firstname.lastname@example.org.