Step inside Mother Courage, New York's historic lesbian-owned feminist cafe

Mother Courage was a trailblazing space for underserved members of the queer community.

black and white image from Alex Ketchum's 'Ingredients for Revolution' showing three women standing in front of a restaurant menu.
Image: @mofad on Instagram

When Mother Courage opened its doors in 1972, it wasn’t just the first-known feminist restaurant in New York City’s Greenwich Village, but the first in the entirety of the United States.

Named after the notoriously anti-war Marxist poet, Bertolt Brecht, Mother Courage was founded by lesbian lovers Dolores Alexander and Jill Ward. Alexander and Ward, in addition to being restaurateurs, were also fierce feminist activists. 

Mother Courage was as much a dining establishment as it was a hub for the women’s liberation movement in 1970’s New York City. Through blood, sweat, tears, and $10,000 in crowdsourced micro-loans and personal savings, Alexander and Ward transformed a dilapidated luncheonette in Greenwich Village into the heart of the women’s liberation movement. 

In its early days, Mother Courage operated on a shoestring budget. Instead of custom decor, the restaurant was decorated with house plants and sketches by local feminist artists. Instead of glossy, printed menus, the restaurant’s menu was painstakingly handwritten each day on a small chalkboard. 

The venue received varied reviews from critics, unsurprising given New York City’s immense reputation for food and service. However, regardless of its reviews, Mother Courage amassed a large crowd of regulars, mainly literary feminist New Yorkers, including the likes of Audre Lorde and Kate Millett. 

For Alexander and Ward, profit was never the end goal, instead the couple wanted to create a space that could act as a community building for like-minded individuals, i.e. feminists and lesbians. 

At the time, there were repercussions for women who attended a lesbian gathering, often resulting in those women losing their jobs. Mother Courage provided a space where lesbian women and feminists could gather, work, socialise, organise, and eat without fear or repercussions. 

After seeing the success of Mother Courage, other lesbian and feminist women tried to recreate the combination of a restaurant and a safe space with varying degrees of success. Some of these endeavours focused more closely on the food, but maintained a political angle by ensuring that their ingredients were locally and ethically sourced. Certain restaurants, such as the Brick Hut Cafe, often support local agricultural endeavours, like the California grape growers strike, and boycotted others, like the Florida orange juice boycott during Anita Bryant’s anti-gay campaign. 

Being so vocal about their opinions often got these businesses into trouble, like when the windows were smashed at the Brick Hut Cafe in Berkeley, California.  

Dr Alex Ketchum, a professor at the Institute for Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at McGill University, speaks extensively on the role these feminist-owner cafes and restaurants had on the modern feminist movement in her book Ingredients for Revolution: A History of American Feminist Restaurants, Cafes, and Coffeehouses. 

According to Ketchum’s research, these kinds of establishments began cropping up in the 1970’s and ’80s. While many of them still exist today, these early projects were instrumental in shaping American feminist networks, which subsequently shaped lesbian culture and expanded US feminist food politics. 

In her book, Ketchum offers research on more than 230 feminist restaurants, cafes, and coffeehouses across the United States that “challenged the status quo around cooking and consumption through the creation of feminist food”.

Discussing how each of these individual establishments approached its menu, Ketchum writes: “Depending on the restaurant, decisions about how to make food feminist revolved around vegetarian ethics, labor issues, cost, and the sourcing of products”.

While there were certainly disagreements amongst various business owners about how best to achieve their mutual goals, the majority of founders did agree that menu prices should be kept at a minimum, that food should be ethically-sourced and organic (when possible), and that vegetarian-friendly menu items were a must-have. 

Vegetarianism became closely linked with left-leaning lesbianism when a growing awareness of environmental consciousness framed the consumption of meat as wasteful, expensive, and counteractive to the community’s goal of anti-war pacifism. Similarly, plant-based menus were significantly cheaper to source and prepare than menus that contained meat. 

By preparing a more cost-effective menu, these establishments were able to maintain their often middle and lower-class clientele. This trend resulted in many of queer-owned restaurants and cafes offering discounted vegetarian menu options such as Bread and Roses’ Poor Women’s Special and Bloodroot Feminist Vegetarian Restaurant’s Tightwad Tuesday special. Maintaining an affordable and inclusive menu was imperative to maintaining the queer feminist strategy and working-class solidarity that these businesses upheld. 

While the majority of these businesses were founded by lesbians, for lesbians, in the 1970’s, the labels “lesbian,” feminist,” and “women” were often used interchangeably. That being said, marketing these spaces as women’s spaces protected queer clientele from public scrutiny while also allowing women who were questioning their sexuality to explore without the pressure of committing to an identity. 

By identifying themselves as restaurants for women, these establishments also negated the tribulations that came along with being a queer establishment in 1970’s. At the time, the vast majority of queer spaces were mafia-owned, centred around the consumption of alcohol and sexual pleasure, and were frequently subject to police raids. Establishments like Mother Courage were able to skirt these drawbacks and offer queer people a safe, affordable, and sustainable place to gather.

Unfortunately, six years after it opened, Mother Courage closed its doors for the last time in 1977. The close came as a shock to many patrons of the cafe, who arrived to find a note taped to the door. Signed by Ward, it read: “Sorry, folks, I just can’t do it anymore.” 

This became an unfortunately popular trend fo similar restaurants and cafes that opened after Mother Courage. The businesses would see a few years of popularity, only to close their doors unexpectedly as the result of financial stress, burnout, and infighting. However, Ketchum assures readers of her research, “this does not mean that they were failures.” What we saw instead was a revolving door of lesbian feminist dining establishments – ss one business shuttered their doors, another one would emerge in its place. 

For example, the same year that Mother Courage shut down, Bloodroot Vegetarian Restaurant and Bookstore opened up in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Owned and operated by Selma Miriam and Noel Furie, is still operating to this day. 

Ketchum goes on to explain how these various establishments often struggled with lesbian separatism, a subset of feminism that, due to its essentialist view of gender, called for the social and geographic separation of men and women. “The term ‘woman’ within coffeehouse titles was especially controversial when the coffeehouses were deciding whether they were open to trans women,” Ketchum observes. 

Unfortunately, as these businesses were often less visible to the public, they were able to enact trans-exclusionary membership policies that prevented trans women from joining them socially or politically. As a result, coffeehouses frequently ran into issues with admissions, as not all cis women were lesbians, and not all lesbians were cis women. 

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