As this image so provocatively reveals, women and sugar (and sexuality) are seemingly inextricably linked in contemporary society. Women, we are told, eat chocolate to ease menstrual cramps, have a stronger sweet tooth than men, and are commonly referred to by pet names like sugar pie and honey bunch. Given the development of Western sugar consumption, however, it is problematic to assume that this relationship between women and sugar is an inherent one. In fact, the association between women and sugar in the West, particularly in Great Britain and the United States, developed in large part over the course of the nineteenth century through gendered socioeconomic situations and targeted marketing campaigns, and we continue to experience the effects in the present day.
It is no secret that nineteenth-century Britain was a hierarchical, class-based, and gendered society; however, the less obvious connection between this structure and the development of sugar consumption is critical to understanding the relationship between women and sugar. Sidney W. Mintz recounts the historical development of sugar consumption in Britain in his enlightening book, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, stating that sugar was “a rarity in 1650, a luxury in 1750, …[and] a virtual necessity by 1850” (148). One of the key developments in nineteenth-century sugar consumption was a shift in the application of political power from serving West Indian planters’ interests (thus keeping the cost of sugar high) to advocating for “free trade,” which succeeded in reducing the cost of sugar for the British public and increasing consumption as a result, particularly among the lower classes (174-175). Indeed, power and sugar are strongly linked—Wendy A. Woloson cites William Reed when she argues that the power Great Britain derived from sugar production (read: exploitation of land and labor) contributed to its eventual status as a world power (26). Gender begins to complicate these class dynamics, however, when considering the role of the consumer.
Political power intended to increase sugar consumption is insufficient to transform a rarity into a necessity, because the consumer must have a vested interest in consuming the product as well. With the development of sugar as an increasingly cheap, easily available commodity in the eighteenth century, came the adoption of sugar by working-class families as a meal replacement. Mintz illustrates how sugar, previously solely the plaything of the wealthy, entered the working-class diet in the late eighteenth century in the form of sweetened tea once milk and small beer became too expensive (115), and how it eventually became commonplace both in tea and in preserves eaten with bread by the late nineteenth century (129). Sugared foods increased in popularity also in part due to their reduced fuel costs when compared to home-prepared foods (130). Importantly, working-class women and children often consumed these sugary foodstuffs to reserve the valuable proteins and carbohydrates for the family’s male breadwinner (130). In assessing working-class caloric intake by sex in the late nineteenth century (with an admittedly small sample size), Oddy reports that women consumed on average 1,870 kilocalories while men consumed 3,321 (320)! Economic need, combined with gendered patterns of consumption, began to render an association between sugar and women.
Sugar was also increasingly marketed to women in their role as mothers, with respectable authorities asserting sugar’s health benefits for children. Dr. Frederick Slare recommended that “in want of this [sweet breast] milk, it is well known, sugar is brought to supply it” (qtd. in Sussman 49). Although this quote is an early example (from 1715), a chorus of voices joined Slare as time progressed and sugar consumption became commonplace. A later example, featured in Professor Martin’s lecture, reads in part, “Note to Mothers: Exhaustion may be dangerous….Sugar puts back energy fast…Play safe with your young ones—make sure they get sugar every day” (Martin). This message, the exact opposite of the one directed at parents today, established women as a key target group for marketing sugar. Additionally, the turn of the nineteenth century saw that largely income-less American women began to rely increasingly on their sweethearts and husbands to purchase gifts of chocolate on major holidays (Cooper 73-74). This and other historical developments helped cement the relationship between women and sugar (and sexuality) in Western society.3
Despite our contemporary acceptance of the inherently “feminine” nature of sugar, women developed a taste for purchasing and consuming sugar (and providing it to their children, at least until recently) due to larger social and historical factors that developed over the course of the nineteenth century. Between the gendered distribution of food in the working-class home and the targeting of women in advertising, it is completely unsurprising that a famous group of late twentieth century music artists sing to a woman, “Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch/ You know that I love you” (The Four Tops).
- I am using the term segmentation to describe the form of sexual objectification that occurs frequently in marketing where only segments of a woman’s body (for example, just a torso or legs) appear in advertisements.
- This image is from 1917, so it falls slightly outside of the time period under consideration; however, its depiction of British women in the workplace serves to illustrate the larger issues of sugar consumption, gender, and work.
- This article does not deal in the intersections of race and gender, to its detriment. A longer paper would need to address the implicit whiteness of the “Western” women under discussion here and the explicit absence of the black men and women who were and are the primary laborers growing sugar and its sister crop, cacao, frequently under forced labor conditions.
Cooper, Gail. “Love, War, and Chocolate: Gender and the American Candy Industry, 1890-1930.” His and Hers: Gender, Consumption, and Technology. Ed. Roger Horowitz and Arwen Mohun. UP of Virginia: Charlottesville and London, 1998. 67-94. Print.
The Four Tops. “Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch.” Online video clip. YouTube. CBS, 17 Jan. 2009. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ndnINyBPRU
Holt, David. “Women Workers Woolwich Arsenal 1917 London.” Photograph. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 11 Mar. 2015. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Flickr_-_davehighbury_-_Women_workers_Woolwich_Arsenal_1917_London_(30).jpg
Jenny. “Sugar Lips.” Photograph. Free Stock Photos. Web. 11 Mar. 2015. http://www.freestockphotos.biz/stockphoto/17616
Martin, Carla D. “Popular Sweet Tooths and Scandal.” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 25 Feb. 2015. Class Lecture.
Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin Books: London, 1985. Print.
Oddy, D. J. “Working-Class Diets in Late Nineteenth-Century Britain.” The Economic History Review. 23.2 (1970): 314-323. Web. 10 Mar. 2015.
Sussman, Charlotte. “Women and the Politics of Sugar, 1792.” Representations 48 (1994): 48-69. Web. 10 Mar. 2015.
Unknown Artist. “Filling and Sewing Bags of Granulated Sugar, New York.” Photograph. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Filling_and_sewing_bags_of_granulated_sugar,_New_York,_from_Robert_N._Dennis_collection_of_stereoscopic_views.png
Unknown Artist. “Workmen Leaving Platt’s Works, Oldham 20th August 1900.” Photograph. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 11 Mar. 2015. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MandK_Industrial_Revolution_1900.jpg
Woloson, Wendy A. Refined Tastes: Sugar, Confectionery, and Consumers in Nineteenth-Century America. Johns Hopkins UP: Baltimore and London, 2002. Print.