Second most consumed beverage in the world - tea. Tea has been discovered and revolutionised globally. In 2020, the global tea market was valued at a whopping estimate of 200 billion US dollars.
And the number is only expected to rise in coming years.
Behind the movement is a handful of women who have been influential in shaping the colossal tea commerce. Some of these women were more than just creating tea socialising clubs, they were relentless business women in their times - proving that women can do business just as good as the men.
In celebration of International Women’s Day, this article highlights the ladies who helped to shape the tea industry, as we see it today.
MARY TUKE (17th Century)
Born in England, Mary was one of the first women tea merchants.
In an era where women are not widely accepted to trade, Mary never gave up. She continued growing her business, selling teas and other increasingly popular items like coffee, chocolate, sugar, etc.
After seven years of jail threats and many fines, she finally got a business licence. Her business prospered more when she took her nephew, William, under her wing.
OURA KEI (18th Century)
Over in Japan, we have the pioneer of green tea export, Oura Kei.
Oura saw the potential of Japanese tea exports, persuading the farmers to focus on a new type of tea, Sencha.
Using her connections with the Nagasaki trading community, she collected and sent tea samples to America, England and Saudi Arabia.
Kei was responsible for the Sencha export, establishing from zero to 5,000 tons of Sencha in 10 years.
CATHERINE CRANSTON (19th Century)
Catherine is the creative genius behind making tea a fashionable and refined concept.
She envisioned tea to be part of conversations. Aside from teas served in elegant tea wares, she went another step ahead to design unparalleled ambience. Thus, the birth of Willow Tea Rooms.
Catherine’s business had great success, creating a tea niche for high society, from homes of the rich to hotels.
Fun fact: In the 18th century, women were not allowed to enter coffeehouses. So for the working class, the women took it to their homes, serving tea in their drawing rooms.
This paved the way for tea parties and interest in Chinese tea wares. Sale of tables and chairs for tea time also grew.
These tea gatherings also created the perfect opportunity for women activists to fight for women’s rights - without the presence of men. (Since women were often left out of politics too.)
DR. ANNIQUE THERON “The mother of Rooibos” (19th Century)
Most of us probably grew up knowing about tea’s health benefits sometime in our lives.
But it was only in 1968 that the world discovered that teas were more than just a refreshing beverage or for socialising purposes.
Dr Annique Theron discovered Rooibos healing abilities.
She noticed that her ill baby stopped wailing and slept well after making her drink some brewed tea leaves. Weeks after, her curiosity only increased after seeing that the baby’s dry patchy skin was recovering. The vomiting stopped too.
Theron’s pursued research, scientifically verifying that rooibos has healing properties for colic and eczema.
Of course, the research journey was not an easy one as a woman but she could not ignore how the tea had miraculously helped her daughter.
In 1997, Annique Theron was awarded the best woman inventor by the World Intellectual Organisation.
Theron’s discovery of Rooibos’ healing properties is just the tip of the iceberg.
Tea grew to be a healthy lifestyle. The industry flourished even more, as people became curious about other teas’ health benefits.
As one can see, women are more than just sipping tea and gossiping around with large hairs. They fought, they worked, they envisioned.
Whilst there are more names that are not mentioned, it is clear that these women were vital in the history of tea.
And their impact created waves of female leaders afterwards - not only in the tea industry.