The Ladies of Edenton meet the next lady of Foggy Bottom

With news reports everywhere confirming that Hillary Clinton will accept Barack Obama’s offer to serve as his Secretary of State, it seems like the perfect time to reflect on one of the most condescending smears deployed by the Democratic presidential candidates and their supporters during the primary race:  that Hillary Clinton’s service as First Lady didn’t give her any meaningful experience with foreign affairs or diplomacy, and that it could be reduced to simply drinking tea with diplomats and the wives of foreign leaders.  Late last year in the thick of the leadup to the Iowa Caucus, Chris Dodd said, “To somehow suggest having been the First Lady is the kind of experience that qualifies you to be president, I’ve never heard that argument before.”  Obama, in touting his foreign policy experience, said “It’s that experience, that understanding, not just of what world leaders I went and talked to in the ambassadors house I had tea with, but understanding the lives of the people like my grandmother who lives in a tiny hut in Africa.”

Obama’s comment about tea-drinking with ambassadors was widely understood–and appropriately so–as an attack on Clinton’s experience as First Lady.  Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright fired back, “Senator Clinton has been in refugee camps, clinics, orphanages, and villages all around the world, including places where tea is not the usual drink. . . . In addition to these experiences she has met with world leaders and has known many of them for years.”  In case you have any doubts that this allusion to tea-drinking was too subtle for the hoi polloi, check out all of the comments in stories like this, this, and this, in which people who opposed Clinton continue this dismissal of her foreign policy experience as “tea-drinking,” and go even further than Obama or Dodd to feminize Clinton’s experience by reducing it to “tea-drinking” with the wives of foreign leaders.  This of course served to marginalize Clinton’s experience and render it irrelevant to the public sphere and to international politics.  And, the tea canard lives on:  in yesterday’s Telegraph, Tim Shipman wrote in an article called “Six reasons why Barack Obama is mad to hire Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State,” he writes, “Yes, I know Mrs Clinton is qualified, she knows foreign leaders, she has taken tea with many of their wives too.”

Bristol tea bowl, 1775

Why did this insult of “tea-drinking” leap so easily to mind when it came to denigrating Hillary Clinton’s (and only Hillary Clinton’s) foreign policy experience?  Well, my friends, as your favorite early American feminist historian, I can tell you that dismissing inappropriately ambitious or aggressive women as mere “tea-drinking ladies” is a trick older than the Republic.  As it happens, this week in my graduate seminar and in my undergraduate class, we’ve read two books that treat the connection between eighteenth-century Anglo-American women and tea drinking:  T. H. Breen’s The Marketplace of Revolution:  How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence (2004), and Clare Lyons’ Sex Among the Rabble:  An Intimate History of Gender & Power in the Age of Revolution, Philadelphia, 1730-1830 (2006).  Both books–Breen’s book more directly, Lyons more indirectly–address the feminization of tea drinking because of its association with women and domestic spaces.  Drinks like beer and rum were served and consumed in male-dominated public spaces like taverns and ordinaries.  (For more information on taverns as masculine spaces and political crucibles of the Revolution, see Peter Thompson’s Rum Punch and Revolution:  Taverngoing & Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia, 1999).

Tea drinking was not only associated with women and domestic spaces, but by the mid-1760s it was associated with luxury, dependence on England, and therefore, political corruption.  While most finished consumer goods were also imported from Great Britain, tea came to serve as the ultimate symbol of effeminate dependency in an era when a manly independence was the new political fashion.  Tea was in fact a product of Empire, and only available to colonists via the East Indian company, but then so was the masculine tipple rum–and no one ever suggested that rum be on the list of goods subject to the non-importation movements.  The broadside satire at right, “The Drunken Husband and Tea-Drinking Wife, &c.,” published in the 1760s, suggests that this gendering of refreshments was widely understood (and frequently a frustration in heterosexual relationships.)

Satire of the Edenton Tea Party, 1775

The famous image at left is of the “Edenton Tea Party,” a very real instance of Anglo-American women’s political action in 1774, when 51 women signed a petition and vowed their support of the non-importation movement.  However, this satirical engraving clearly mocks these women who took political action.  In this portrait of women’s politics, a child is neglected by women portrayed either as unattractively mannish or as beautiful but sexually immoral.  (What other women would presume to be involved in politics other than these disreputable examples?  Shades of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, anyone?)  Another woman hypocritically takes a draught of tea from a tea bowl so enormous that it obscures her face drinks from a punch bowl, a ritual that plays on the notion that the women are engaging in a masculine political ritual (see the comments by historymaven below for an explanation of this corrected interpretation).  An African American woman is in the image too, suggesting that women’s political activism is dangerous for its race-mixing and implied racial levelling.  Furthermore, a dog pees indoors on some tea chests, suggesting domestic squalor and delivering a final insult to British tea.  (See Baudrillard’s Bastard for a thread earlier this year on the symbolism of dogs peeing in eighteenth-century editorial cartoons.)

Clearly, the suggestion that Clinton had no relevant foreign policy experience was just primary politics, as was all of the rhetoric about her horrible, unforgivable, selfish, ambitious, disgusting 2002 AUMF vote.  (A vote identical to every other Senator who was in the senate in 2002 and who ran for president from the Senate in 2004 and 2008 except Bob Graham.)   Nevertheless, it was as if Clinton had armored up and drove the tanks into Baghdad herself!  How special that Democrats chose to forget that it is Bush, Cheney, and Rummy who are to blame for that debacle!  Yes, so much easier to cherchez la femme, isn’t it?  I guess all is forgiven now.  Obama knows that Clinton has name-brand recognition that will go a long way towards repairing the damage done to the international reputation of the United States.  And, as I said back in April, “the Clinton style and legacy will be with us for a long time, whether or not that’s the surname of the next President.”  Obama modeled his primary campaign on Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, and he (unsurprisingly) is taking advantage of the talent and experience many Democrats earned as Clinton administration appointees.

It’s interesting to note too that the office of Secretary of State since Albright was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1997 has not been held by a white man, whereas before 1997 it was held exclusively by white men.  (Albright was of course succeeded by Gen. Colin Powell, who was himself succeeded by Rice.)  Does this suggest the feminization or demotion of diplomacy in some ways?  I’m sure Obama recognizes that Clinton has the potential to be a powerful Secretary of State along the lines of George Marshall or John Foster Dulles, not like the subordinate Powell and Rice.

Because current politics and foreign affairs go far outside of my fields of professional expertise, I checked in with my friend and colleague Nathan Citino, our expert in U.S. diplomatic history at Baa Ram U., to hear what he thought about Clinton’s likely appointment as Secretary of State.  He made two very interesting points, one historiographical and one political.  I’m copying his reply exactly here below:

1.  This appointment comes at a time when publications in US foreign relations are increasingly recognizing the contributions and challenges faced by women diplomats.  This year, for instance, Notre Dame Press published Jean Wilkowski’s Abroad for Her Country, a memoir by one of the most important early US women diplomats who joined the foreign service during World War II and who served in Latin America, East Asia, Europe, and as an ambassador in Africa.  A new volume of Eleanor Roosevelt’s edited papers came out last year, too, covering the crucial years following World War II when ER was one of the UN’s leading advocates.

[As for comments by Clinton’s primary opponents dismissing her experience as mere “tea drinking,”] scholars are undermining the distinction between official diplomacy and the unofficial, and unpaid, “tea diplomacy” carried on by diplomats’ and military officers’ wives.  Check out Lydia Chapin Kirk, Distinguished Service: Lydia Chapin Kirk, Partner in Diplomacy, 1896-1984(2007); Donna Alvah, Unofficial Ambassadors: American Military Families Overseas and the Cold War, 1946-1965 (2007); and “’Commanding Beauty’ and ‘Gentle Charm’: American Women and Gender in the Early Twentieth Century Foreign Service.” Diplomatic History  31 (June 2007): 505-530, by Molly Wood.

2.  For me, the significance of Clinton’s appointment, if she accepts and is confirmed, is that many diplomats and world leaders will deal with her on the basis of their assumption that she will be the next US president.  This will be a dramatic change from Condoleeza Rice’s experience, because many people abroad assumed that US foreign policy was made outside of the State Department and that other figures, such as Cheney and Rumsfeld, had more influence.  In fact, Obama might use this expectation to his advantage as a way of signaling that US foreign policy will be less militarized than it was under Bush, and that the State Department will take the leading role in conducting diplomacy.  Of course, Clinton can use her role as secretary of state to immunize herself against the very charges of foreign policy inexperience that she faced during the primary campaign, in preparation for a possible run in 2016.

I look forward to hearing what you and others think, too.

Thanks, Nate, for your informed opinions and bibliographical suggestions.  I don’t know about Clinton running in 2016–I’m skeptical myself, but then, I was surprised that she did so well this year.  (I think our first woman President will be a moderate-seeming member of whatever we call the conservative party at that point in history, and that I won’t live to see the day of her inauguration myself.)  Secretary of State was historically the stepping-stone to the Presidency:  Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, and James Buchanan all served as Secretaries of State before their elections to the Presidency.  All of these men are ranked as better than average Presidents with the exception of Buchanan.  But, note well that this hasn’t happened since Buchanan was elected in 1856, and we all know how well that turned out, don’t we?  (Curse you, third-worst President Buchanan!)

0 thoughts on “The Ladies of Edenton meet the next lady of Foggy Bottom

  1. Pingback: Suburban Guerrilla » Blog Archive » The Next Lady of Foggy Bottom

  2. Thanks, History Enthusiast. Yes, the “Ladies of Edenton” satire is so obvious and so ugly, isn’t it? It’s things like this that reassure me that people in the future will be able to analyze this political season and diagnose the misogyny quite accurately. (That still doesn’t mean they’ll be over misogyny–far from it! They’ll point to 2008 like they did 1775, to reassure themselves that they’re so much more enlightened than all that now!)


  3. Once again, Historiann and Roxie’s World demonstrate a kind of semi-transcontinental vulcan mind meld. See What we lack in historical context and insight we make up for in enthusiasm and cleverness. We also think ditching her current job for Foggy Bottom is a nice way for HRC to deliver an (elegant, diplomatic) FU to all her colleagues in the Senate who went out of their way to disrespect her by endorsing the far more junior member of the august body who was her opponent in the primary. Classy, guys (and gals). Totally classy. She laughs last gets the whole world for her stage.


  4. another bibliographic reference of interest–several years ago I saw Karriann Yakota give a really great paper about consumer culture, national prestige, and George Washington’s quest for a set of china that would earn him respect from international diplomats (difficult! how do you get all that china from enlgand to the us wihtout cracking?!).

    I think it’s forthcoming in Brian Edwards’ _Globalizing American Studies_, out next year…


  5. Thanks, Historiann! I’ve been working up my thoughts on virility in contemporary American politics and how ideas of masculine power factor in representations of women (think about the symbolism of loss of Clinton’s vital power in the stained blue dress, the odd timing of Elizabeth Dole’s run for the Republican presidential nomination as her husband sold erectile dysfunction medication, and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s use of the term “cojones”–the list goes on…).

    May I offer an interpretation of the material culture of the Edenton Ladies caricature? You note that one woman is drinking from a large teacup. That object is a punch bowl, and it appears that the group is toasting itself on its accomplishment with a masculinized object and ritual. Punch, the ingredients of which were found in the course of empire building, was a popular drink in the colonies; taverns sold it “by the bowl” so it was a drink of sociability. This observation, I think, reinforces your take on the print. On gender, punch, and tea, you may be interested in the following article by Karen Harvey: “Barbarity in a Teacup? Punch, Domesticity and Gender in the Eighteenth Century,” Journal of Design History 2008 21(3):205-221.

    The face of the individual holding the gavel is drawn so specifically that it is surely a representation of a male political figure, but I haven’t located evidence for that assertion. I also not that the African American woman holding the tray that holds the pen that signs the contract (a prerogative of men in this era) serves as a symbol of enslavement (legal in North Carolina, but used to represent here that women are incapable of free thought or will), akin to the image of seduction in the center of the print.

    Here’s the abstract for the essay I note above:

    The juxtaposition between refinement and barbarity was a critical one in eighteenth-century England. This essay examines the gendered aspects of this distinction as it was manifested in the meanings associated with punchbowls, teacups and punch pots. The new hot drinks of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are now a well-examined subject of historical research. Work on coffee has emphasized consumption in male-dominated coffee houses, places which also served as loci for concerns about uncivil behaviour. In contrast, tea drinking is seen as central to polite domestic sociability, linking women and the home. Punch and the material culture of punch drinking, however, has been subjected to very little historical attention. This essay considers eighteenth-century juxtapositions of tea and punch, exploring therein the distinctions between refinement and barbarity, women and men and home and outside. The article then examines developments in the material culture of punch drinking and the appearance of punch pots from mid-century. The article closes with the argument that these hybrid vessels playfully united masculine homosociability and feminine domesticity, at a time when the discourse of domesticity was being consolidated.


  6. History Maven and Sara–thanks for the other citations and further thoughts. I don’t know about the punchbowl comment, though–I thought the bowl the woman is drinking from in the engraving looks a lot like the 1775 tea bowl depicted above it. People didn’t drink punch directly from the bowl, did they? I assume they drank it in cups dipped from the bowl, but I suppose looking to this engraving for any standard of proper behavior is probably a mistake!

    Ellr, what can I say? Drinks have powerful symbolic political meanings, as do most consumer goods. Remember that scathing ad against Howard Dean 5 years ago that accused him of being a “volvo-driving, latte-sipping, sushi eating liberal” or something like that. I’ve never understood the appeal of having a beer with a mean drunk like GWB, but there are a lot of Americans who apparently are attracted to that abusive kind of masculinity. Sad.


  7. Allow me to make a strike for my training in material culture studies! Tea bowls were much, much smaller than punch bowls, though the latter could vary in size. The Bristol tea bowl here is depicted with its saucer. Tea bowls and tea cups were about 2-4 inches high and in 2-4 inches in diameter. The size of the vessel in the cartoon doesn’t fit the teaware sizes in colonial America.

    Punch bowls of manageable sizes (and likely for smaller groups) were indeed passed around in colonial America. Larger punch bowls could be 12 inches to 18 inches in diameter. George Washington ordered in 1770 an entire set of 17 Queen’s china bowls of nine sizes–holding from one cup to two gallons.

    The origins of toasting supposedly come from medieval English rituals of pledging, in which soldiers swore their loyalty by drinking from the same vessel. Club meetings, political meetings, business transactions in colonial America could be “sealed” with punch drinking and toasts. The woman drinking out of a punch bowl confirms the masculine nature of signing the pledge not to drink tea as the same image is used to ridicule women’s temerity to attempt it.


  8. People often drank hot beverages (including chocolate) in “dishes,” i.e., flatter ceramic objects into which they poured them from the cup–including the saucer itself. This facilitated the cooling of the contents, although I guess it made for a sort of “slurpy” conversational millieu. That object in the picture, granted, is a bowl and not a saucer. Tea and especially its apparatus was a pretty malleable commodity, politically, during the era of Revolutions. It was Thomas Wedgwood, I think, who made–and sold in Britain–small one-cup teapots with the legend on the side “No Stamp Tax!”

    I think the appointment is a very good move by him, and for the country, and probably for her. Although I regret a bit on behalf of my native state the at least temporary loss of her services and advocacy.


  9. Ok, historymaven, you’ve persuaded me: it’s a punch bowl! But, I don’t think the decisive bit of evidence is the size. (After all, so many things in this image are exaggerated, why not show a tea-bowl five times its actual average size?) It’s your comment that the punch-bowl is a gendered accoutrement that underscores the notion that this is a masculine political ritual being celebrated by handing around the punch bowl.

    And, although there are so very many disgusting things about colonial America, the notion of a whole group drinking out of the same 2-gallon capacity vessel really makes me want to puke. (That’s why I’ve always gagged at the notion of a “communion cup” in church!) Barf-ola.


  10. Here’s some stuff on Albright, Clinton and Latin America.

    A poor human rights record is a poor human rights record whether its holder is a woman or not!!! I care more about the rights of women not to be tortured than the rights of women to order and/or approve torture!!!

    The kind of event recounted in this link was one of the reasons I didn’t like Bill. I don’t deny that Hillary got experience as first lady during that period, but it is the quality of that experience which concerns me.


  11. There’s no gender essentialism here–this is a post on the gendered language and ideas that were used to evaluate Clinton’s experience only during the primaries. I’m not arguing that she, Albright, and Rice were or will be better or worse than their male counterparts. Besides, Obama’s policies vis-a-vis Latin America will probably look more like George Bush’s policies–minus the ideological bomb-throwing against Morales and Chavez. (Although Obama might “Sista Souljah” Chavez if he loses the elections today, just to make the point that he’s not going to align the U.S. with left-wing crackpot dictators.)


  12. Pingback: Feminist Law Professors » Blog Archive » On Tea Drinking, Diplomacy, Politics and Feminism

  13. Hi votermom. It’s not your “ignorance”–you have to question why this remains an obscure event in the history of the Revolution. Why would generations of historians not have wanted to highlight it or talk about women’s activism in the Revolution? Why isn’t it presented as a women’s counterpoint to the masculine display of the violent destruction of the Boston Tea Party? Gee, I wonder! (Not.)


  14. Last two comments – YAY! The history of political movements is so crucial for ongoing effectiveness – people love to focus on “what went wrong” but it’s equally, if not more, important to understand what went right, how, and what were the limitations. And yes, history in general. Which is why I love this post and the comments.


  15. Pingback: Is Obama A New Kind of Politician? « mirabile dictu

  16. But I am talking to this kind of comment:

    “I think the appointment is a very good move by him, and for the country, and probably for her.” (Indyanna)

    She and Albright have histories rather more tenebrous than tea, and less kind than visits to refugee camps.


  17. Prof. Z–I see what you mean, but I think she is a good representative for Obama’s foreign policy–actually she may have set a more progressive foreign policy as President than it looks like he will. His foreign policy is looking an awful lot like George H.W. Bush’s!

    Your beef is therefore with Obama, not with Clinton alone, if he indeed has asked her to be his Sec’y State. (And, Happy Thanksgiving!)


  18. Pingback: Of corpse-kicking and His Irrelevancy : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  19. Pingback: Simpson Strikes Again « Sky Dancing

  20. Pingback: “A lot of money would make things better.” : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  21. Hi! I’m a sophomore in high school doing some research, and I wanted to know what dogs urinating in political cartoons meant. I found this site linking to another (Baudrillard’s Bastard), and I tried to read it, but google told me that I am unable to read that blog because I wasn’t invited. I really need to know what the symbolism means, so is there any way I can either be invited into the blog or have it summarized for me? Thank you so much!

    -A very grateful student


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