Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Liberal Studies


James Wilson

Subject Categories

Food Studies | Women's History


sugar, Victorian, women, gender, appetite, foodways


Since at least the nineteenth century sweetness and a preference for sweet foods has been linked to femininity. Western, middle-class women learned and reproduced normative gendered dietary behavior due to both private and public pressure to control their appetites and those of their children. In performing their gendered roles, they came to embody them through everyday rituals such as teatime. Sugary foods and drinks served as necessary props in these performances. Theorists, most prominently Jean-Jacques Rousseau, began to propose a linkage of sweet foods with femininity in the seventeen hundreds. In the following century, the medical profession explained women’s tastes as a function their anatomy. “Dainty” became a ubiquitous word to describe respectable women and the preponderantly sweet foods that they supposedly preferred. The theoretical framework provided by Erving Goffman illuminates how women learned to perform their gender and Pierre Bourdieu helps explain the judgement necessary to reproduce class identity. Michel Foucault’s idea of the panopticon elucidates the space where everyday behavior was disciplined. Women learned proper food habits from a variety of media including dietary advice books, conduct guides, cookbooks, lifestyle magazines and advertising copy. The same rituals and spaces of gendered food consumption—teatime, parlors, tearooms—that disciplined women’s behavior also gave them an opportunity for homosocial activism. Abolition, temperance, and suffrage are all movements that can be linked to women organizing around the tea table. Teatime also presented a business opportunity in the form of lunchrooms and tearooms to middle class women. Though the focus of the study is the nineteenth century the food-related, gendered behavior described is still commonplace today.