women of tea
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Women of tea

Men may have traded, stolen and grown tea but women have made significant social and cultural contributions to the industry. Here are three women who have had a big influence on tea.

Catarina de Bragança (1638-1705)

Portuguese princess who popularised tea in England

Catarina de Braganca Popularly known as Catherine de Braganza, this Portuguese princess married Charles II, who ruled as King of England, Scotland and Ireland from 1662 to 1685. Tea was a popular beverage among Portuguese nobility by the time she arrived in the English court and as part of her dowry she reportedly brought tea, cane, lacquer, cotton and porcelain.

According to the UK Tea & Infusions Association, when Catarina sailed to England from Portugal she endured a rough journey and, upon landing, requested a cup of tea. Unfortunately our favourite beverage was rare enough that none could be found and she was instead given ale, which, let’s face it, doesn’t exactly settle the stomach in quite the same way.

While the queen consort is often credited as introducing tea to England, that’s not quite true. Tea had already arrived on its shores by the mid-17th century but it was a rare commodity even among its upper class. The English took a while to warm to Catarina as she was Roman Catholic at a time when being Anglican was preferable (as for the circumstances of the marriage, let’s just say England was broke and Portugal was rich) but her habit of taking tea, which Charles II soon enough shared, won over the court.

Back in her day royalty was celebrity so when the queen did something, it was bound to increase that thing’s popularity. And so it was with tea, which spread from the royal court to the aristocratic class and then to wealthy people.

Her contribution was not just popularising tea drinking, however. Catarina’s dowry also included Bombay (now Mumbai) in India and, combined with Charles II’s support of the East India Company, this laid the foundation for tea trade with the east and, eventually, the establishment of India’s tea plantations.

Anna Maria Russell (1783-1857)

Duchess of Bedford and godmother of afternoon tea

Anna Maria Russell An early breakfast and a late supper makes for a very hungry lady during the day and so Anna Maria Russell, Duchess of Bedford and confidante of Queen Victoria, took to having a pot of tea and some cakes and sandwiches in the mid-afternoon. Being a hospitable lady with a thirst for gossip, Anna then thought it was a great idea to invite some friends over to share this light refreshment so they could meanwhile spill the news.

While Britons of all classes would come home from work to a meal called ‘tea’ in the evenings, which usually featured a hot dish, meat, bread and possibly cake, with or without tea the beverage, Anna is often credited as popularising her lighter version.

Anna’s afternoon tea began at around four o’clock and was a much more social affair. Considering the working classes would be, well, at work during this period, this was a practice largely confined to the upper classes and is probably where much of the English etiquette around formal tea-taking emerged as well as the increasing importance placed on acquiring specialty teaware.

There is some evidence to suggest this occurred around Europe even before Anna arrived on the scene; serving tea was an afternoon ritual and very much part of a woman’s domain. Anna, being of noble birth however, was just in the right position to set the trend in England and beyond to its colonies and the Americas.

Yukako Sen Shinseiin (1850-1916)

Established tea education in Japanese girls’ schools

If a kimono-clad woman springs to mind when you think of chado, the Japanese tea ceremony, you have Yukako Sen (known as Shinseiin) to thank. Prior to her intervention, tea in Japan was a male-only domain linked to the samurai class.

To understand a little about tea teaching in Japan you need to go back to the 16th century when famed samurai Sen no Rikyū refined the tea utensils, etiquette and ritual you might witness at a chado ceremony today. Rikyū’s grandson Sen Sōtan was instrumental in reviving his grandfather’s teachings and of Sōtan’s four sons, three of them became founders of a school of tea: Mushakōjisenke (second son), Omotesenke (third son) and Urasenke (youngest son).

Yukako was the daughter of Urasenke‘s 11th generation master Gengensai Seichu Soshitsu. It is likely that, as with many of her female ancestors, Yukako was privately well schooled in chado thanks to her father’s guidance, but due to the masculine nature of its mastery could not serve it as part of a traditional event.

Fortunately for Yukako, Japan’s social upheaval during the late 19th century gave her a chance to shine. The traditional revenue for a tea school came from rich families who sent their son to learn tea. As class boundaries and the political stronghold of the samurai class faded, this income soon dried up. Education, previously the domain of the samurai class (with education outside the home largely for boys), soon became accessible to all.

Yukako saw an opportunity to broaden the teachings of chado and petitioned for it to be included in the curriculum of the new girls’ schools and was successful in establishing the practice among women, which is why today it is not unusual to have a female chado practitioner serve you tea.

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