This week marks the 100th anniversary of the U.S. Senate passing the 19th Amendment and 100 years of women voting. Early suffragists spent years, and in some cases entire lifespans advocating for the right to vote. Many of their meetings were infused with tea.  

By August 1920 the necessary 36 states had acted, and the 19th Amendment became law.

On July 9, 1848, five key members of the American women’s suffrage movement met for tea in Waterloo, New York. The participants in the tea party were Lucretia Mott, Martha Wright, Mary Ann McClintock, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and hostess Jane Hunt. The setting was the Hunts’ house, modest yet comfortable, with a red velvet sofa, a map of the United States on the wall, six parlor chairs drawn around the tea table, and Jane’s best teapot, cups, and saucers.

Lucretia and Elizabeth had, in London several years previously, vowed to hold a convention about injustices suffered by women. So while this tea party probably started as a calm affair, it quickly became the launchpad for nothing less than the Seneca Falls Convention, the first women’s rights conference in the Western world.

Women protest in front of the White House in 1917. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Just over half a century later, tea again linked itself to the women’s right to vote movement. One of the legendary hostesses of Newport society was Alva Vanderbilt Belmont; she and her first husband, William Vanderbilt, set the standard for grand homes on fashionable Bellevue Avenue when they opened Marble House in 1892 at a cost of $11 million. The couple divorced in 1896, and Mrs. Belmont kept the mansion.

In 1913, Alva had a Chinese tea house constructed on her back lawn overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The red and black lacquered building seated over 100 guests at fundraising teas benefiting her new passion, women’s suffrage.

In 1913, Alva Vanderbilt Belmont had a Chinese tea house constructed on her back lawn overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.

A year later, Mrs. Belmont hosted the Conference of Great Women at Marble House, where she and her daughter Consuelo, Duchess of Marlborough (Blenheim Palace), gave speeches to those assembled.

J. Maddock & Sons produced sets of porcelain tableware bearing the “Votes for Women” theme as part of a luncheon service for the event. The dishes were used again at a tea party held at the mansion in July of that year. Both events raised money to support the suffrage movement, and guests received teacups and saucers of the china as favors.

America’s women’s suffrage movement, like the 1773 rebellion in Boston, was steeped in tea.

The U.S. House of Representatives finally approved the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, which guaranteed women the right to vote, on May 21, 1919. The U.S. Senate followed two weeks later, and the 19th Amendment went to the states, where it had to be ratified by 3/4ths of the-then-48 states to be added to the Constitution.

By a vote of 50-47, Tennessee became the last state needed to ratify the 19th Amendment on August 18, 1920. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby issued a proclamation declaring the 19th Amendment ratified and part of the US Constitution on August 26, 1920, forever protecting American women’s right to vote.

You can own a replica of Alva’s tea set.

Read more about tea’s influence on commerce, culture, and community in A SOCIAL HISTORY OF TEA by Pettigrew & Richardson, Benjamin Press.

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