Women and Chocolate: Then and Now

The chocolate we see advertised today is a gendered product, marketed toward women and men shopping for women, sometimes in controversial ways. Chocolate has not always been this way, however. While chocolate today is heavily advertised to women, cacao products have not always been so accessible to them. With permission (or persuasion) to eat chocolate foodstuffs or not, women have had an important role throughout chocolate’s history in its progression from Aztecian drink for nobility to forbidden snack of sultry television commercials.

In its earliest known origins, cacao products were a meal for mostly men in Aztec societies. Cacao was combined with maize in drinks and gruel and served to male warriors as a sort of high-caloric fuel for fighting (Martin). It was a luxurious item and highly restricted to high class Aztecs and awarded to men successful in battle (Presilla). Women did not have these same honors and ability to indulge. In an Aztec palace, women catered to the powerful high-class men and,  “prepared the elaborate food, chocolate drinks, tobacco, and other stimulants so essential to display of palace hospitality” (Evans). Chocolate was a treasured substance for the Aztecs, and women of their society are to be thanked for the nobility’s drinks, gifts, and warrior’s sustenance provided by cacao (Presilla). Their role was in marketplaces, vending drinks they prepared, and doing physical work and technique in preparing frothy cacao splendors.  Aztec women were encouraged to learn such culinary skills in order to attract a wealthy husband (Evans). The Spanish colonists accounted for so much of what historians know about chocolate consumption by the Aztecs (Presilla). They observed its consumption by soldiers and nobility. Women seemed to really be essential to its enjoyment, which, when noticed by the Spaniards,  made its spread to Europe possible.


An image of a woman preparing a frothy chocolate drink, from the Códice Tudela. In the historical accounts by Spanish missionaries in Mexico, women were essential to the preparation of chocolate drinks and gruel for Aztec nobility and warriors (Presilla).



When the Spanish brought cacao to Europe, chocolate increased in popularity in different ways throughout the countries there. Some women of nobility were allowed to enjoy chocolate, but in certain regions, chocolate was reserved for men, like in England, where chocolate drinks were enjoyed in chocolate houses for the more elite. Images of these gathering spots depict only men meeting at long tables and drinking their chocolate (Coe and Coe).

The Industrial Revolution then changed chocolate consumption with better means of mass producing cacao products using improved machinery. Like for Aztec society, women still were important to chocolate-making. Even with mechanical means of production on a larger scale, many women were employed in chocolate factories. Women were essential for factory work for the English Quaker John Cadbury, founder of the Cadbury company. Cadbury employed women, and also men, but the two sexes were not allowed to work alongside one another. The company set out to “protect” women employees by separating male and female workers, and then firing the women when they married, to let them devote themselves to a housewife lifestyle, as a part of Cadbury’s Quaker values (Satre). In Cadbury’s factory and others, men worked the more physically demanding jobs, while women were allocated tasks like wrapping and boxing chocolates for distribution (Robertson). Still, the chocolate world was dominated by famous male entrepreneurs who started some of today’s most successful candy companies (Martin).

As the availability of chocolate rose because of its shift toward mass production, the ways in which it was consumed diversified as a result of increased availability. At the end of the 19th century, in tandem with a rise in the “domestic science” and ventures in selling home economics to women, the popularity of celebrity cooks increased. Women began baking chocolate into new and diverse treats, like brownies, cakes, puddings and pies (Martin). Recipe books, which integrated chocolate with treats for the family, truly enforced the shift in chocolate being gendered for women. Famous confectioners’ recipe books became extremely well known, like those of Maria Parloa and Fannie Farmer, both women. The popularity of baked goods incorporating chocolate  was shared by women and through such cook books, enhancing the gendered role of women in the kitchen and popularizing their delicious chocolate treats (Martin).

Chocolate companies during this time began advertising chocolate to women in ways that enforced roles for them as homemakers and mothers. Advertisements portrayed happy mothers and boasted the benefits of chocolate for their children (Martin). Even today, chocolate advertisements tend to target women, framing chocolate as a sexy, dark, romantic, forbidden item. These advertisements enforce traditional gender roles, much like the chocolate advertisements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but in a way that is more provocative.

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These two advertisements, one a newspaper clipping and the other a television commercial, both portray advertisements, from the early 1900s and 2000s, that are aimed toward women as chocolate consumers, but sending very different messages.

Overall, from chocolate-makers forbidden from enjoying cacao, to packagers, to the target audience of chocolate companies, snacking on dark, forbidden Dove squares, women have been an inseparable part of chocolate’s rise to global popularity (Martin). As the ways in which we consume chocolate changed, were elaborated, and diversified, the role of women in its production progress made a sort of turnaround, from forbidden by society to consume cacao, to encouraged by advertising, but simultaneously discouraged somehow through heteronormative messages that chocolate is a forbidden snack, and meant as rich indulgence for women.



Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. 2013[1996]. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd edition. London: Thames & Hudson.

Evans, Susan Toby. 1998. “Sexual Politics in the Aztec Palace: Public, Private, and Profane.” RES Anthropology and Aesthetics. No. 33.

Martin, Carla. 2016. “Brownies: The History of A Classic American Dessert.” US History Scene. http://ushistoryscene.com/article/brownies/. Accessed 6 March 2016.

Martin, Carla. “Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food Lecture Slides 2016.”

Presilla, Maricel. 2009. The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised: A Cultural & Natural History

of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.

Robertson, Emma. 2014. “‘You weren’t Supposed to Eat ‘Em but Everybody Did:’ Women Confectionary Workers And Contested COnsumption on The Shopfloor.” Food and History. Vol 12.

Multimedia Sources

Códice Tudela. Digital Image. Wikimedia Commons, from 1553. Web. 6 March 2016.

Vitavose Milk Advertisement. Digital Image. Wikimedia Commons, from 1932. Web. 7 March 2016.

DOVE Chocolate “Only Human” TV Commercial. Video File. Youtube video, from 23 July 2010. Web. 7 March 2010.

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