Here’s the story of how tea has played an instrumental role in the lives of women through the ages. It covers the powerhouse activists from the 1700s to the 1900s, who used it to mobilize support for women’s rights around the world; the untold story of women’s influence in tea commerce that shaped the sector into what it is today and a South African woman (Annique Theron) who propelled Rooibos to the top of the global tea charts when she made an unexpected discovery.

Drinking tea has played a central role in the lives of women across the globe for centuries. It’s hard to imagine a world without tea, but like much of written history, the tale of women’s roles and how instrumental they were in shaping tea commerce as we know it today, has not been well-told.

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Mary Tuke (1725-72), who was born in England, was among the first tea merchants to build a chain of tea stores – the equivalent of Starbucks back in the day – and did so amid jail threats and fines as many (mainly men) were vehemently opposed to a woman running a business.

Oura Kei from Japan (1850-80s), was pivotal in creating the Japanese tea export market, while Catherine Cranston (1880-1930) from Scotland built a renowned chain of tea rooms in Glasgow, which led to hotels setting aside space for afternoon tea. The list of female tea innovators and influencers, such as Elizabeth Petrovna (Russia), Penelope Barker and Alva Belmont (both American) goes on and on.

To the powerhouse activists of the 1700s to 1900s, drinking tea wasn’t an idle pastime, these women used ‘tea gatherings’ to mobilize support for women’s rights, which over time paved the way for women to start identifying outside of the home, and obtaining loans to start small enterprises, owning property and frequenting establishments without the companionship of a man.

Another remarkable woman who propelled Rooibos tea to the top of the global tea charts is Dr. Annique Theron, fondly known as the “mother of Rooibos”.

She first stumbled upon the healing powers of this uniquely South African tea 50 years ago, in 1968, when she gave her allergic baby a warm bottle of Rooibos to drink. It was the only thing that settled her allergic reaction – even to mother’s milk – since her birth. Curious about its effects, Dr Theron set out to investigate if there was more to the tea, beyond a refreshing drink. As it was difficult to prove her findings as a woman at the time, she struggled and faced great adversity, but couldn’t ignore the miraculous change in her daughter’s health. She became dogged in her pursuit to scientifically explore and verify the healing properties of Rooibos. 

Today Rooibos is one of the most popular beverages consumed globally thanks to Dr Theron’s discovery. “Her tenacious and never-give-up attitude has created a booming industry, which has not only contributed to a healthier lifestyle for millions of people,” says Adele du Toit, of the SA Rooibos Council. “People have come to rely on this rare and unique herb for almost every ailment: Soothing sunburn, calming a colicky baby, revitalizing skin, keeping hair healthy and strong, boosting immune systems and improving blood flow.”

“No matter the issue, it seems that a cup of tea can solve nearly any problem,” laughs du Toit.

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