The Fascinating History of Feminist Restaurants
And what makes a restaurant feminist in the first place?
AHP note: This is final (for now!) edition of the Culture Study Interview Series, in which readers interview the scholars, activists, etc. they find most interesting. The series is going on hiatus for now, but I’m grateful for the support that allowed me to pay these interviewers an excellent rate.
This month’s interview with Dr. Alex D. Ketchum is conducted by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, who you can read more about at the end of the piece. You can read previous Culture Study interviews on antiquities smuggling, on music as torture, on the social lab of PE, and the mechanics of escape rooms.
What makes a restaurant feminist? That is the question at the center of McGill University lecturer Alex Ketchum’s new book Ingredients for Revolution: A History of American Feminist Restaurants, Cafes, and Coffeehouses. Ketchum, who has also written about how to organize inclusive events and engage in feminist and accessible public scholarship, traces the blossoming of feminist restaurants in the US, starting in 1972 with Mother Courage in New York. The more than 230 eateries that followed in the next 50 years provide a rich historical record of the fights for women’s and LGBTQ+ rights, as they were (and still are) essential places for these communities to gather and grow.
The issue of running an ethical restaurant came to the forefront during Covid-19, when frontline workers went back into kitchens to keep these institutions alive. The debate has only deepened with revelations about abusive workplace practices within the food industry, from the closing of fine dining restaurant Noma to the continued exploitation of farm workers.
While increasing diversity within the heavily white and male-dominated industry won’t solve these fundamental issues, Ketchum makes a compelling argument that a more equitable feminist restaurant model can have resounding impacts not only in terms of labor rights but also sustainable food practices and providing safe spaces for marginalized groups to express their creativity and connect.
HSF: How did you go about defining what makes a feminist restaurant?
AK: That was probably one of the biggest challenges of the entire project. I didn't want it to be about my gut feeling. I didn't want to be prescriptive in the definition. I didn't want these to be so tied to me. I wanted there to be some external factors to say yes, this is a feminist restaurant. Because there are lots of different types of feminism. There are lots of debates within feminism. And I wasn't interested in saying, "This counts and this doesn't count." Instead, I wanted to know why a restaurant would call itself feminist in either its name or in its marketing or publications. That was what was interesting to me because you could have a restaurant run on feminist principles but not call it a feminist restaurant. You might isolate certain folks or people might not feel welcomed into the space because the term feminism can turn some people off. You could be potentially limiting your clientele or you could be opening yourself up to risk.
When Selma Miriam at Bloodroot Feminist Restaurant put the sign up, her mom said, "You're gonna get a brick through your window the first week." It never happened. But there was that fear. So I was wondering, what were the stakes for these folks that it was so important to mark their space as feminist? I wanted to understand how they were understanding what it meant to be a feminist restaurant. Because people would say, "Oh, does Moosewood in Ithaca, New York count?" [A pillar in the natural foods movement started by Danica Wilcox]. I was like, "Ah, does it count?" It didn't under these parameters. I also thought, what am I going to do about these anarchist restaurants or these social justice restaurants? Because then the project would get out of hand. So I wanted it to be that they met these parameters, that they were calling themselves feminist.
HSF: Bloodroot, a feminist and vegetarian restaurant that was founded in 1977 and still exists today, plays an important role in your project. How did you become introduced to it?
AK: There's a personal connection. I went to Wesleyan for undergrad. I was really involved with the school's organic farm. I founded and managed a living community, these student-run living communities around food politics. And I was taking feminist studies courses. I was trying to figure out what to do my senior thesis on and was interested in food and gender questions and issues of labor. I started working on that and someone said, "Hey, have you ever heard of Bloodroot? It's just down the road in Bridgeport, Connecticut." I was living in Middletown, Connecticut, at the time. I convinced a few friends to take me. I became super interested. Part of it is the food tastes really good, so that's nice. I remember walking in and there was a certain vibe that I was just so excited to be in. I loved the bookstore part. I liked the mix-matched furniture, that you bus your own on table, that Selma would sit at the table and hand calculate the bill and I could ask her questions about the space. There's a window into the kitchen so you can see the work that was being done. It's not hidden. You're aware of the labor. It was 12 years ago, but it definitely made an impact. I've been back a couple of times since. That was really key for me.
What really drew me to these questions of feminist restaurants was this tension that we see around feminism, women's empowerment, issues of unpaid domestic work and the connotations with the burden of cooking. I tried to understand if these restaurants were a space that challenged those problems. In fact, that wasn't really the story that was there, but that's what brought me into it. I thought "Oh, this is another way of dealing with unremunerated domestic food production." But the story was more about creating feminist spaces and creating lesbian spaces.
HSF: Why did feminist restaurants start taking off in the ‘70s?
I have issues with the wave metaphor for first-wave, second-wave and third-wave feminism because it really focuses on white middle-class American women's narratives and leaves out a lot of other folks. But we still look at that similar periodization of during the second wave, you have feminist activism building up in the early '60s around Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, the problem that has no name, and middle-class and upper-middle-class housewives feeling really dissatisfied with their lives and the exploitation of their domestic labor.
Not that you have to be a woman to be a feminist, but around the '70s, there was a huge emphasis on women and certain essentialist ideas around gender. A lot of women involved in civil rights and anti-war movement work faced sexism within those movements. So you see this building solidarity of women are also facing oppression on the basis of being women. We live in this patriarchal, sexist society. You see the rise of consciousness-raising groups, marches and protests. Then you also have the rise of gay liberation in the late '60s. This builds up this force that by the early '70s, there are established different feminist activist principles and movement work. But folks are starting to become more interested in how can I make this my lifestyle, not just something that I do on the side. How can I actually support myself and live out my values? One of the ways of doing that was by creating these feminist restaurants, feminist bookstores and feminist credit unions.
Especially in the early '70s, it was about living out their feminist values. Not that we don't have manifestos today. But that really was a time of manifestos, stating what you believed in and trying to market as such. Part of it was visibility, to let other women know that, "Hey, this is important. This is a space that is for you." I'm using women in a certain way here, especially in the '70s sense. It expanded for folks who are interested in upending sexism and upending patriarchy and folks of all genders. The meaning changes over time. It was also a way of keeping the collectives or the folks running them accountable. There's a different kind of accountability that you're held to if you're saying, "I'm doing this as a feminist project," versus "I'm doing this project and feminism informs that." Because people could then say, "I don't think what you're doing is very feminist. Why are you calling yourself a feminist restaurant?"
HSF: What are some restaurants that stand out as being particularly interesting case studies?
AK: Bloodroot is particularly important because it still exists today. For a restaurant to last 46 years, that's wild. I hope people visit it. Mother Courage in New York was significant because it's the first one. The Brick Hut in the Bay Area was really significant to me in terms of its connection to the women's music movement, and it also existed for quite a long time [from 1975-1997] and moved three times.
There's Big Kitchen in San Diego, which still exists today. A musical was even written about it. I'm trying to give examples that aren't just coastal because I don't want people to think that they existed just on the coasts. For coffee houses that really stand out for me, there’s A Woman's Coffeehouse in Minneapolis. They're quite significant because they sometimes put a tape recorder in the middle of their meetings. So I got to spend a lot of time with this space. There's also one in Iowa City: Grace and Rubie’s was a feminist restaurant and then there was a coffee house, Iowa City Women’s Coffeehouse. Also, Las Hermanas Coffeshop in San Diego meant a lot to me, looking at the archives and being able to read through all their own newsletters. They had so many events and so much programming.
HSF: One of the tensions I find interesting is wanting to build these sustainable, often collective economic models, but still being stuck in the capitalist system.
AK: If you had told me 12 years ago how much time I would spend writing about tax law and tax status, I would have been surprised. This is an ongoing tension, whether it's for the creation of feminist restaurants in the '70s or today or anyone who's trying to create a business that's based on social justice values. I have a triangle in the book, which I know is the most simple diagram. But it's actually one of the things I'm most proud of with this project. It's about trying to balance the needs where on one side, you want to make sure that the people working are paid well and able to make a living wage and hopefully can have health care.
That's something some folks have worked on in recent years so the people working there are taken care of. On another side, you want to make sure the farmworkers growing the food are taken care of, are paid properly for their labor and that it's good ingredients that aren't harmful to the environment. Then on the other third side of the triangle, you want to make sure the prices are affordable so people can actually go there, that it's not just an elitist space where people with a lot of money can go. Especially when you're targeting different marginalized groups that might have less access to capital to spend in the space. That's a really hard triangle to balance.
A lot of the restaurants that had challenges ended up underpaying themselves, using sweat equity and burning out. They tried things like pricing items at a certain level, but having a sliding scale soup or a dish of the day that's more financially accessible, kind of pay what you can. So people can still come to the space and hang out and be there without the financial burden.
HSF: It's also incredible that it took so long for women to access the banking and financial capital to open businesses.
AK: It wasn't until 1974 that the Equal Credit Opportunity Act was passed in the US, which said banks can't discriminate on the basis of sex. But that still didn't mean banks weren't discriminating, it just became illegal to do so. Prior to that, women couldn't get credit cards in their own names. It had to be under their father or husband. So especially if you're a single woman who's a lesbian, you might be disowned by your family and you don't have a husband. Getting financing and being able to get credit to start a business was really difficult. One way of dealing with that was some groups started feminist credit unions to finance what they called "women's movement work" and support women trying to start businesses or doing different stuff. There was also what we would call crowdfunding today. They didn't call it that, but it's basically crowdfunding. With Mother Courage, they asked for money from their friends and said, "We'll pay you back within a certain amount of time, and we'll give you interest on it."
Some groups like Common Womon Club in Northampton, Massachusetts, asked for donations and hosted events and fundraisers. They held women's dances at colleges, like Smith College, in order to fundraise and get seed money. They did a lot of what we'd call pop-up events today as well. They sold at fairs and festivals to fundraise. Some had memberships to get some income coming in. But people had to be really creative. There were some folks who did have some of their own money that they were able to invest. That shows some of the class tension with who was able to start these restaurants. But most of them started with very little seed money.
Things had to be done using the sweat equity of building furniture and tearing all the stuff down yourself or getting your friends or families to help. That required a lot of labor and it also meant the businesses were more vulnerable. If you're part of a major restaurant group and have a bad week or a bad month, you're probably okay. But if you're really close to the line of you'll go out of business if you have one bad week, that adds a lot more stress and tension on the folks running this place.
HSF: How did these restaurants go beyond just places to eat and actually build community?
AK: Some of it is the cultural aspects of bringing performers into the space, having musicians, political speakers and poets. Sometimes it’s famous folk, and sometimes just folks local to the community, who share different ideas. Not that other restaurants don't have events, but many of them were very event centric. What also sets them apart is there's this quote from Selma in the book talking about how she listens to music from musicians of all genders at home, but in Bloodroot, she wants it to be women's music, to create that sonic space. And some of them had women-only nights. There were a few that had memberships that were women only.
But even if we look at the ones from today that exist, they’re not women only. They’re feminist spaces, but it's more the feminism of upending the patriarchy and sexism and how those things oppress people of all genders. There is still an emphasis on having feminist books or publications. So much of it is around events and care and bringing people together. Another difference is the establishment of regulars, not that other restaurants can't have regulars. But there is this sense that people don't just go there usually once. They keep coming back and back.
HSF: What role does food play in that?
AK: Food is oftentimes this way to get to know others and about their culture as a first step. It can invite people in. It can create community. It can make people feel welcomed. Food is really powerful in that way. The biggest difference is food and drink create a space to linger. Feminist bookstores were really important too. Kristen Hogan has a great book on them [The Feminist Bookstore Movement]. I include feminist bookstores if they sold coffee or had food. Because the moment you have that, people are more invited to sit around and not just browse but to maybe spend hours there and meet other people. That’s one of the powers that food brings into the space. And it's different than a bar. Some of them sold alcohol but many of them were sober spaces for a variety of reasons. Some tried to be an alternative to the lesbian bar culture, some because of the difficulty of getting a liquor license so they could be all-ages spaces. But alcohol also creates a space for socializing, but it's charged in a bit of a different way.
HSF: A lot of the restaurants were run by queer women. How did that intersectional identity fit into the feminist restaurant movement?
AK: I'll answer this in two parts. One is the establishment of women-specific spaces, women-only hours or women-centered spaces was in reaction to living in a patriarchal world and feeling ongoing sexism every day and trying to create a space apart from that: Having a space where you can eat if you wanted to and not be hit on or harassed for being a woman by herself. They still dealt with sexism from vendors that they had to work with, those types of things. At the time, there was this lesbian separatist back to the land movement in which they were creating women-only, farm-based communes, There were some spaces in cities, like in Durham, North Carolina, in which there were a bunch of different lesbian co-ops and housing. It was kind of a separate space, but it was still within a larger city.
Now, the question is was this really inviting for all women? Did all women feel comfortable here? No. Whoever is running the space is going to impact the space. The restaurants themselves tended to be founded by white lesbians. Many were founded by Jewish women, more disproportionate statistically than the US population as a whole. Versus the coffee houses, which needed lower overhead and had a lot more women of color involved. There were debates within the spaces of like, why are we using the word woman? Don't we mean lesbian space? What about questioning women? Even women who love women, as not every community uses the word lesbian. There's debate around are we being trans inclusive or trans exclusive? They didn't necessarily use that exact terminology, but that was some of the debate that happened. Even though people might assume that they were all very TERF-y and didn't want trans people, that's actually not the case. There were some that were trans exclusive, but many were trans inclusive.
Then there are also issues of racism that women would face in the space. In Minneapolis, A Woman's Coffee House recorded a lot of their discussions. And they had questionnaires with questions like, why are so many of the people coming white? People responded that their friends who were Black would sometimes feel uncomfortable because they would be tokenized or hyper-sexualized in the way that people were treating them. There were discussions around what can we do about this. They created a series of anti-racist training workshops and committed to having a huge percentage of performers, performances and acts be centered around women of color.
They really tried to address it, but that didn’t mean that everyone felt comfortable. Also in terms of who these spaces were for, there’s the question of women who were disabled, who had mobility difficulties. If there were stairs then women in wheelchairs couldn't participate. The other thing was if women had kids or not, especially boy children. Would kids be allowed in the space? So even if the goal was for all women, it didn't always play out that way. Now, some places were known as anyone can come here, especially the most marginalized. Places that were known for that were the Brick Hut in the Bay Area and Big Kitchen in San Diego.
HSF: You include the case study of Lagusta Yearwood, who bridges the feminist restaurant to the modern era. Yearwood did her stage, or internship, at Bloodroot before starting her own sweets and food businesses in New York, run on similar ethical principles.
AK: Lagusta’s connection with Bloodroot is a major thread for me. I follow what she does closely and she is very transparent about all of her decisions with her businesses. Part of what she’s done is make her menus smaller to make them more manageable and sustainable in terms of workload. She'd rather prioritize trying to get health care for her employees than having 70 items. Also making things seasonal as best as possible. Part of it is also trying to establish yourself within a community so that it's not just this restaurant coming in and being a gentrifying force. But instead, it's actually tied to who else is living in the area, what other businesses or other kinds of community centers are around and trying to make those connections.
HSF: The issue of running an ethical restaurant came up recently with the announcement of Noma’a closure and even successful restaurants relying on underpaid and overworked staff. Can the feminist restaurant model address any of these issues?
AK: I'm so glad you brought up Noma. When I was following the Noma stuff, I thought, "This isn't new. Lots of people have been dealing with this for so long” — in feminist restaurants but also in other social justice restaurant spaces where there have been a lot of folks in the industry who have been talking about it for so long. But they tend to be women or people of color or other kinds of marginalized backgrounds. They are like, "We have been saying all of this and now you listen because there's one dude mentioning it."
The restaurant industry is diverse and discussions around fine dining tend to be a bit different than running a breakfast place or a diner. But still, the question is how much money someone is making off of this space. Is it that you are prioritizing making sure that people working there are paid a living wage across the board and no one's getting rich? Or is it that you have one person who's reaping the benefits, and everyone else is exploited?
HSF: Shows and movies like The Bear and The Menu have started to bring the often secretive world of what happens in a restaurant kitchen to the broader public.
AK: I've been listening to a lot of interviews and discussions on Radio Cherry Bombe, a podcast focused on women and food. One thing that's been raised was how The Bear and The Menu both seem to bring more of the public into these understandings than the many, many articles that have been written about this over the past decade. But seeing it in a film or TV show raised the stakes for people in a way.
What's also interesting with The Bear is that while it's a diverse set of actors and a diverse group of characters, it's still centered on this one white dude's story. I mean, I enjoyed the show. But he is the one who people are able to empathize with. If you look at who is actually facing more harassment and discrimination within the restaurant industry, yes there are class issues And there's the exploitation of people who are stuck during their stage. But if I had to pick the face of who is exploited by the restaurant industry, I don't think he would be the first person I would think of. I might actually think of the character Sydney first.
HSF: And it should be noted that while the statics have improved, men still run the majority of restaurants.
AK: Chef Jen Agg has talked about this quite a bit. She’s drawn so much attention to the issue of representation with the Michelin star system. The James Beard Awards has really had a reckoning and has become way more inclusive over the years. But who is seen as a chef versus who's seen as a cook? Who gets paid to cook food and who doesn't? Those are some of the big things. It's a lot easier for male chefs to get financing for their restaurants. They're more likely to get bigger loans. It's a symptom of our larger societal issues around who is seen as a voice of authority and power. And then there’s the sexual harassment that happens within the restaurant industry This is an ongoing problem. I mean, more women own restaurants today than they did in the '70s. But it still is less than men.
HSF: What else do you notice that’s changed with feminist restaurants today?
AK: I think there are two things there. One is that the people who are starting these spaces today tend to be more racially diverse than they were in the past. I think there's a variety of reasons for that. One is more access to credit. I also think the way that identity was treated in the '70s and '80s was different than it is today. For example, there was an understanding then that racism, sexism, ableism and classism were happening, but there's less seeing how one's experiences as a woman were also impacted by her race, her class and her physical ability, things like that.
There was an understanding of how racism and sexism were interwoven in the '70s and '80s. But all of these factors put together, that analysis existed and was being done by women of color, like the Combahee River Collective. But it was less prevalent in the conversations that were happening. Most of it was around race, gender and sexual orientation. Or the categories were treated as discrete. I think today, with Kimberlé Crenshaw's work on intersectionality and how other folks take in work, it has become more pervasive in society to think about how gender is racialized, how race is classed, how race is gendered, all these different components.
The other bigger change is how we understand gender overall. There's more trans inclusivity. But there's also been other backlashes because of more trans visibility. I think the move has been more toward queer rather than lesbian identities because it allows for a bit more flexibility. Even lesbian identity was understood quite differently in the '70s, where you have political lesbianism and stuff like that. To me, it's not surprising that restaurants today would look different than they did in the '70s because feminism has changed. It's new generations of folks. I don't think it's bad that they're different. It's a good thing that feminism can grow, adapt and change. It would be terrible if nothing had changed over 50 years, as more people's awareness was raised about different issues. This is positive and the ones that have existed since the '70s have also grown and adapted and changed in different ways.
HSF: Switching gears a bit, but you’ve also written extensively on making academic work accessible and also made a feminist restaurants directory. Why is this important to you?
AK: I don't want my work to just stay within a small group of scholars. It's not to put down academic journal articles. I think it can be an important way of talking about ideas, but most folks aren't going to read one, especially because many of them exist behind paywalls. I don't know to the degree that folks are aware of this, but if they paid for an academic article, I don't get paid for that. The peer reviewers don't get money. The copy editors usually get a little bit of money. Even the editor of the journal doesn't really get money. It's these large publishers that get all money, so it's an unjust, unequal system. That's why I have the directory available because I'm hoping other people will look at it, build on it, let me know what I'm missing. They’ll see that directory and investigate what's going on in their city or a region that they're most interested in. I do have case studies in the book, but I couldn't go into depth about every single one of these restaurants. I want to be a resource for others and I feel that way about all of my work. I have open-access versions of every article I've ever written. I publish zines about my work that I sell for like $4 or $6.
In a similar ethos to these restaurants, I want people to be able to actually spend time with them. I don't want there to be these huge barriers.
Hannah Steinkopf-Frank is a freelance writer and photographer in Paris, France. She likes stories that take her on historical deep dives, as well as allow her to explore issues of gender, faith and identity through the lens of culture. In her free time, she enjoys sewing her own clothes, playing guitar and biking around what is becoming one of Europe’s most cycle-friendly cities.