Illustration by Eleanor Doughty

Eating Out, as a Feminist

In the feminist restaurants of the 1970s and 1980s, "I'll have what she's having" was a political statement. Why have they all disappeared?

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Sep 28 2015, 4:45pm

Illustration by Eleanor Doughty

In 1975, People magazine ran an article with a lede better than this one. "Is the kitchen any place for a feminist these days?" Jim Jerome wrote. "The answer is yes, provided the kitchen is in a restaurant owned and managed by other feminists."

Jerome was reporting on the third anniversary party of Mother Courage, a feminist restaurant in Greenwich Village run by Dolores Alexander and her partner Jill Ward from 1972 until 1977. The first establishment of its kind in the United States, the place was something of a legend in activist circles—like a neighborhood watering hole, if your neighborhood was feminism—and it inspired many other feminist restaurants throughout the United States and Canada. Like business, the anniversary party was happy and booming: Over 100 people were in attendance, Jerome reports (though Gloria Steinem was "away at a conference"), and they celebrated with champagne, quiche, and chocolate cake. In keeping with these of-their-time quaintnesses, Jerome uses the word feminist like it denotes another species; in addition to his introduction, he notes that, often, "out-of-town feminists check in" at the restaurant, which, with its convivial atmosphere and dish-washing owners, felt "almost clubby."

At a time when the faded protest posters decorating vegan cafes seem more anachronistic than anarchist, it's hard to imagine why a woman would want or need an explicitly feminist restaurant; if I heard of such a place opening now, I would probably roll my eyes. All but one of the spaces scholars call "feminist restaurants" have closed in the years since the heyday of the women's liberation movement. (The exception is Bloodroot, a feminist restaurant that opened in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1977 and serves "ethnically inspired vegetarian cuisine.") Hearing this, a contemporary mind jumps to a story: Small business owners struggle to deal with sexism and systemic discrimination on top of the standard hardships of small business ownership. But the real story—as firmly located in the second wave as it is—is slightly more complicated.

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Concentrated in major cities like New York, Boston, and San Francisco, and later spreading to smaller cities in the Midwest and south, the feminist restaurants of the 1970s and 80s represented a quieter form of consciousness raising amidst the aggressive activism of second-wave feminism. Spaces like Mother Courage—as well as other early and prominent examples like Bread & Roses in Cambridge, Massachusetts; the Brick Hut Café in Berkeley, California; and Susan B.'s in Chicago—were born as much out of necessity as of political statement: A woman dining alone or with other women was often treated with suspicion, if not refused service all together.

"Before the women's movement, women alone or in pairs or who just weren't accompanied by a man often weren't allowed in restaurants," said Alix Kates Shulman, a novelist who is mentioned in the People article and was an active figure in the women's liberation movement. "The fancier the restaurant, the less likely they were to allow women to come in [alone]." While a feminist wasn't exactly a different species, she was perhaps frequently made to feel that way.

When Mother Courage opened in May of 1972, it was, in Alexander's words, "an immediate success," with reviews in the New York Times, New York magazine, and the Village Voice as well as a cast of regulars that included big names in the feminist movement. Kate Millett would come to play chess; Jill Johnston would bring "her little entourage"; and Catharine Stimpson, then the director of the MacArthur Foundation, would bring in visiting politicians and dignitaries for dinner. "It was a big thrill that [Mother Courage] were opening," Shulman told me. "In those early days of the women's movement, there were lots of small groups of women's activists meeting all over the city, but we didn't get to see other groups except at demonstrations or protests."

Feminist restaurants had precursors in the "suffrage restaurants" and tearooms of the 1910s, which were often sponsored by organizations like the National American Woman Suffrage Association. But the women opening restaurants in the 1970s—which, more than 50 years after women won the right to vote, was still a rare feat—weren't really interpreting their work as part of a lineage, said Alex Ketchum, a PhD candidate in history at McGill University who operates the Feminist Restaurant Project as part of her dissertation. Where suffrage restaurants welcomed male patrons, using their homemade pies and five-cent fish cakes to induce men with voting power to support their specific cause, the feminist restaurants of the 70s were much more about creating spaces where feminists could gather and be comfortable together. "We wanted to be a space for strong, independent women who would be hopefully involved in the women's movement," Alexander said, "and that did happen."

A woman associated with food is less threatening than a woman associated with alcohol.

Alexander's story is especially inspiring because, according to an extensive oral history project Kelly Anderson conducted with Alexander before Alexander's death in 2008, Mother Courage was a difficult undertaking. For a space, Alexander and Ward eventually settled on an old, "filthy dirty" luncheonette that had once been called Benny's, which they renovated, and like many subsequent feminist restaurant projects, they raised money by asking friends for loans. According to Ketchum, women in the 70s usually needed a husband or father to apply for a credit card on their behalf. Feminist credit unions sometimes helped out, but most feminist restaurants were funded by a combination of donations, out-of-pocket money, and, as one article on the Iowa City restaurant Grace and Rubies states, "loans ranging from $10 to $1500 from local women." Even if you could get a bank loan as a woman, you still might be considered high risk, as Alexander and Ward of Mother Courage were, because many proprietors had never worked in restaurants before; as a 1973 New York magazine review of Mother Courage notes, restaurateuring was "usually a male province."

This, despite the fact that "a woman-owned business is rare in the 70s, but [a woman-owned restaurant] doesn't challenge our notions of femininity."

Press around Mother Courage gave the project momentum; the pair and their "unique way of raising money" were featured on the back page of Newsday, where Alexander had been a reporter. Word continued to spread that the new "feminist space" opening up at 342 West 11th was to be a restaurant run by lesbians, with a primarily lesbian clientele, things like this kept happening—while Alexander and Ward worked on renovations, building inspectors and garbage men would come into the space offering vague threats and looking for bribes. Sexism came in handy: Alexander said she and Ward "didn't follow through" on the threats because they "were women" and couldn't, really. The men looking to exploit them backed off anyway, "mostly because we were these women's liberation types, and they knew that we could get a lot of publicity" for being harassed.

What would it be like? Would it be a kind of metaphorical seraglio?

Once the space opened, it became less of an opportunity for sexism and more of a symbol of acceptance. Although Shulman said she once saw a fistfight break out at Mother Courage, she's careful to establish that this was an example of the restaurant's relaxed atmosphere, not prevailing tensions in the women's movement. "People in different branches of women's lib—it was a downtown crowd—did have some very serious differences," she said. There were Marxist feminists versus radical feminists, feminists who welcomed lesbians (or who were lesbians) and those who thought lesbians harmed the public face of the movement; anti-pornography feminists and feminists against censorship. Alexander herself was a divisive figure in the movement; before she opened the restaurant, she was suspended from her position as the first executive director of the National Organization for Women because she supported lesbians (later becoming one herself, with Ward), and after Mother Courage closed, she became known for her strong anti-pornography stance, founding the organization Women Against Pornography in the 80s. But "any lively movement is going to evolve through differences," Shulman said. Mother Courage and restaurants like it were some of the few places where members of these different factions "had a chance to go to this same place and be comfortable and be welcome, and nobody was excluded."

The fistfight was over almost before it began, and Shulman said everyone laughed about it afterwards. "You could never imagine something like that happening at another restaurant. First of all, you wouldn't know anybody!"

"There weren't turf wars," Ketchum confirmed, "but there were debates, for example, about what the space's purpose was and how the space should be run."

The year Mother Courage opened, 1972, was an "exciting" year for the women's liberation movement. Consciousness raising had begun to trickle down to less urban areas; it was the year Gloria Steinem founded Ms. magazine, the year Title IX became law, and the year Eisenstadt v. Baird established that unmarried people could possess contraception. "'72 is a year of lots of hope," Ketchum said. "Women [were beginning to become] interested in starting these spaces and talking about it. And even though there was lots of backlash, it wasn't as strong as in the late 70s."

However, this excitement didn't exempt women from common organizing problems, which were often highlighted by second-wave feminism's particular ideals and limitations. Many feminist restaurants were run by collectives, not turning any profit, and staffed entirely by volunteers. How much time someone should put in—and how to operate within an ideologically horizontal power structure—created tensions.

You could never imagine something like that happening at another restaurant. First of all, you wouldn't know anybody!

Whether men were allowed was often a particular point of contention; as in the feminist movement of the time, there were disagreements about inclusion and exclusion. Mother Courage, for example, welcomed men tepidly, and then more warmly. The restaurant's original policy was to pour wine for the woman to sample—a dramatic departure from custom in most other restaurants at the time—but, according to Alexander, "some guys got hostile." "One said to his date, 'Okay, honey, you can have a taste of the bill too.' And some women just looked at us like, 'Why are you doing this to me?'" So they started being more egalitarian, offering to let both parties taste the wine (and putting the bill smack dab in the ambiguous middle between them).

As in the suffrage movement, some second-wave feminists recognized that there were advantages to skimming some of men's then-inarguably stronger power. Licensing authorities were often suspicious of or openly hostile towards feminist restaurant endeavors; it took Mother Courage years to get a beer-and-wine license because authorities were skeptical of their project. Turning a profit in the restaurant business is often dependent on alcohol sales, but, as Ketchum said, "a woman associated with food is less threatening than a woman associated with alcohol."

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"Well, where are the men?" Alexander asked, imitating licensors. "Where are your male partners? Who's going to vouch for this? Who's going to be responsible for these bills if anything should go wrong?" One of the Bread & Roses co-founders caused some controversy after firing a server who "made men and some heterosexual women feel unwelcome." If they couldn't offer their centuries of earning money as business partners, men could at least paying customers; Mother Courage added a 15 percent service charge to parties of five or more women because, Alexander said, the fairer sex "were lousy tippers, at least in those days."

On the flip side, Grace and Rubies became notorious, at least in some circles, for its no-boys-allowed policy—which was eventually ruled in violation of "federal, state, and local guidelines barring sexual discrimination"—when the fiction writer T.C. Boyle depicted an unnamed version of it in his 1977 short story "A Women's Restaurant." In this story, a resentful male character becomes fascinated and then possibly obsessed with the idea of gaining entrance to the women's restaurant, eventually dressing up in drag so he can pass as a woman and go in.

Women were lousy tippers, at least in those days.

Although one blog attributes the vitriol of Boyle's story to the author's "narcissistic fixation" on the restaurant and "his unrelenting desire to invade that space," Boyle said that's just feminist lore. "Like the narrator of the story, I was fascinated by the idea of a gender-exclusive gathering place, especially one like a restaurant (unlike, say, a locker room), that would normally be available to all," Boyle told me over email. "What would it be like? Would it be a kind of metaphorical seraglio? Would it be like classes at all-women's colleges (which then existed)? Would it allow women to be themselves without having to cater to (and compete for) men? I just wanted to dream about the scenario. (And no, I did not slip in the door in drag, as the popular legend surrounding the story has it, but rather relied on my imagination—and what my female confederate, who dined there twice, had to say about it.)"

Perhaps the story's original placement, in Penthouse, has something to do with these misconceptions.

Ultimately, the notion of the feminist restaurant feels dated because it is: I have spent a lot of time thinking about feminist restaurants because the historical moment that brought them into being is so different from today's. When I asked Ketchum whether these businesses were successful—my impulse being, always, I guess, to think in terms of money and hierarchy—she sort of corrected me. "It's weird to define success," she said. "You could define success in terms of, 'Oh, the restaurant lasted a long time,' but sometimes the community didn't need the restaurant to last a long time. Some of these spaces—the reason they ended was because the needs of the feminist community changed." She offered me the example of the very good-named Susan B.'s: "The woman who's running it gets tired—she's overworked. It was completely financially successful, but she just didn't want to do it anymore." In the years since the heyday of feminist restaurants, various dining establishments and organizations have adopted feminist principles, or at least latched onto the movement in some way: One of many examples is Mazí Mas in London, which is a series of pop-ups that employs immigrant women as chefs and seeks to reclaim "the skills women have cultivated as a result of gender oppression."

For their part, the Bloodroot proprietors, Selma Miriam and Noel Furie, seem to be quietly shaking their heads at contemporary feminism as it continues to diverge from the hard lines of the second wave; according to a Munchies article on the restaurant, Miriam and Furie "took down a poster against high heels that had been in the bathroom, and now don't feel as free to discuss fashion or beauty ideals." Indeed, part of what has kept the place afloat and relevant is that it offers the paradoxical novelty of going back in time. (According to Ketchum, Bloodroot has also sustained itself because Miriam and Furie "diversified their assets"; like many of the more successful feminist restaurants of the 70s and 80s, Bloodroot functions as a bookstore, too. "I bought a book from them, and I was like, 'Really? The list price is $5?'" Ketchum said. "They were like, 'Yeah, that's how much we bought it for! No one's bought this book since 1980.'")

In this case, I suppose the point of restaurants—eating—ends up being subsumed in the point of their politics: What was on the menu was less important than what the menu represented. This, like Bloodroot's anti-heels stance,is not so compatible with the culture of 2015, when photos of all our friends' elaborate meals are available for constant envy. Now that women are allowed to laugh alone with salad in public, a feminist restaurant is less of a draw. Besides, who wants to eat at a decent place when she can Google a really, really good one?

"The food was OK," Shulman told me of Mother Courage, "but I didn't go there for the food. I went there for the camaraderie."