FEMINISTS HAIL A RESTAURANT WHERE THE PIECE DE RESISTANCE IS AN ATTITUDE NOT A DISH
Melinda Schroeder, left, who is starting a feminist credit union in September, raps with overalled Marta Vivas, a founder of Redstockings, one of the oldest and most radical feminist groups. Listening is Minda Bikman, who produces video films for women.
Is the kitchen any place for a feminist these days? The answer is yes, provided the kitchen is in a restaurant owned and managed by other feminists. In 1972 Dolores Alexander and Jill Ward, two energetic women's movement activists, opened Mother Courage in Greenwich Village, the first feminist restaurant in the country ‑if not the world. Last week more than 100 women ‑many of them movement leaders and Mother Courage regulars ‑ joined the owners to celebrate the restaurant's third anniversary. The guests, who celebrated with champagne, quiche and chocolate cake, included New York City councilwoman Carol Greitzer, writers Susan Brownmiller, who has an upcoming book about rape, Lucy Komisar, Kate Millett (Flying), Alix Kates Shulman and Phyllis Chester (Women and Madness). (Gloria Steinem was away at a conference.)
No speeches were necessary. "The word 'feminist' already implies an attitude," says Alexander, who was a Newsday reporter for five years. The moderately‑priced restaurant's success ‑"business is consistently good" ‑ has led to the opening of at least three other feminist restaurants in the U.S. Mother Courage itself has become almost clubby ‑artists hang sketches, customers sell tickets to causes, out-of‑town feminists check in, and the owners and two managers wash dishes, wait on tables and chat with patrons.
Authors Kate Millett right, and Phyllis Chesler share a seat and a chat outside. Millett says she is a regular. "We all are."
Alexander and Ward decided to launch the restaurant ‑named for the heroic figure in a Bertolt Brecht play ‑ at a women's consciousness‑raising session. "The first problem we had was getting a bank loan," says Alexander. "Because we never had worked in restaurants, we were considered high‑risk. So we borrowed from friends ‑$6,500‑ and kicked in $5,500 of our own." They then spent five months renovating a squalid luncheonette.
There were awkward questions of protocol after they opened. "Some guys got hostile when we poured wine for the woman to sample," says Alexander. "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?'" Now both men and women are encouraged to taste the wine, and checks are placed equidistant between the diners.
More important than feminist etiquette is the ambiance of solidarity‑"A woman coming to eat here alone," says Alexander, "knows she won't feel like a freak and won't get hassled by men."
"Men feel comfortable here too," adds manager Joyce Vinson, who was once a management consultant trainee. "There are none of the expectations and role playing of the singles scene."
Lucy Komisar, author of Down and Out in the USA, a study of welfare, says: "More than a restaurant, this is part of a social movement."
As novelist Shulman put it: "This is the one place I can walk into and feel I don't have to be someone else's appendage. Just knowing the restaurant is here makes me feel that we can prevail."
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark/Lee Gross
Alix Kates Shulman, left, talks books with Susan Brownmiller and, in back, Pat Trainor, who works for NOW’s legal defense fund.
Dr. Marcia Storch, a gynecologist with many clients among feminists, is a neighbor of Mother Courage in the Village.
Butterfly McQueen, 64, of Gone with the Wind fame, pleased the crowd with news that she has earned her college degree.
Puffing over a woman's symbol cake are, from left, manager Joyce Vinson, owners Ward and Alexander and co‑manager Rosemary Gaffney.