Chocolate and women: the gendered history behind your sweet snack

Chocolate and women: the gendered history behind your sweet snack

What does chocolate mean to you? Is it a guilty pleasure, an energy hit – or a perhaps a romantic gift?

Throughout history, chocolate has undergone remarkable changes in how it’s made and marketed. Despite this, one stereotype has held strong: that chocolate is inherently feminine.

La Trobe historian Dr Emma Robertson has a PhD in the chocolate industry and is the grand-daughter of a female chocolate factory worker. She takes us through chocolate’s recent cultural history in Australia and the UK, so you can unwrap ideas of gender from your next chocolate bar.

Marketing chocolate: women, seduction, craving

Advertising has long positioned chocolate as a cure-all for feminine romance and relationships. In her book, Chocolate, Women and Empire: A Social and Cultural History, Dr Robertson describes how 20th-century chocolate ads portray women and how these depictions intersect with ideas around class, race and nation.

In the UK, for example, chocolate companies depicted women as nurturing housewives (as in post-war ads for Rowntree’s Cocoa) or desirable upper class women, courted by men (as in 1930s ads for Black Magic chocolates).

Similarly, 1960s Australian TV commercials by chocolate company Cadbury conveyed themes of desire, seduction and mending rocky relationships.

One such advertisement, titled ‘For All the Different Women You Are’ suggested women can transform into different selves with each different chocolate flavour.

Today, constructions of chocolate as hedonistic, sensual and a source of female craving are so common that they’ve become clichéd.

But chocolate’s feminine story hasn’t only been sold through marketing. According to Dr Robertson, it also spilled over onto the factory floor, where women were given strict roles in the mass manufacture of chocolate.

Advertising chocolate as hedonistic, sensual and a source of female craving has become clichéd.

Chocolate-making as ‘women’s work’

Dr Robertson’s research reveals how, in early 1900s Britain and Australia, the art of making chocolate was cast as ‘women’s work’. Over half of the workers at Rowntree’s British chocolate company in York were women. What’s more, they worked in gendered roles and occupied female-focused spaces within the factory.

“Decorating and packing chocolate was very much seen as a woman’s job. You’d have groups of women at one point on the factory floor, with very few men in that room, maybe just bringing in new packing materials, or bringing in trays of chocolate,” says Dr Robertson in a La Trobe podcast.

You have stories from the men that worked there about being a little bit terrified to go into these rooms full of women, who were all quite noisy, talking and maybe teasing them. The way in which the work was organised created women’s spaces, really.”

In 1920s Australia, women were brought from the UK to train new female staff in the art of making chocolate. At the frontline of Tasmania’s Cadbury chocolate factory, they were given jobs in hand-dipping and decorating chocolate, as well as making the gift boxes for chocolate’s presentation in-store.

“George Cadbury was looking to find a workforce of two women for every one man. Women were very important in food manufacturing. It was seen as a feminine occupation,” says Dr Robertson in an ABC Radio interview.

Women in the wrapping room of Cadbury’s chocolate factory in Claremont, Tasmania, 1925. Image credit: Archives Office of Tasmania.

Eating chocolate as a protest

Despite chocolate’s feminised marketing, women working inside the factories weren’t allowed to eat chocolate there. Snacking on chocolate became a kind of contested consumption – and gave the product a unique meaning for the women working there.

“Some women did [eat chocolate], but they weren’t supposed to. One of the women told me she would put a handful of chocolates into her pocket, and that would last her through a shift,” says Dr Robertson.

“There’s also a story about a supervisor who confronted one woman and said, ‘Are you eating, Mrs So-and-So?’ And the woman said, ‘Yes, do you want one?’ and just presented him with this enormous tray full of chocolates. Lillian, one of the oldest women that I spoke to, said it was a real eye-opener to see someone doing that, to stand up to authority in that way. It does give it extra meaning as a product.”

So, when you bite into your next block of Cadbury Dairy Milk, give some thought to the ways in which women have shaped it. Chocolate has a rich history in Australia and Britain, and women are at its centre.

Discover hidden histories with a Bachelor of Arts at La Trobe University.

Dr Emma Robertson

Dr Emma Robertson is a senior lecturer and historian at La Trobe University.