There was a private dining club for feminist vegetarians on Masonic Street in Northampton for five years: 1976-82. What came to be called the Common Womon [sic] Club was the first vegetarian venue in the area. It became the only women’s space in town after the Valley Women’s Union was evicted from its home on Main Street and the businesses that formed the Egg on Hawley Street closed. In addition to offering food at a reasonable price, The Common Womon Club was an organizing space and cultural center. Open to all women, it was a collective, Lesbian owned and operated. As reported in Dyke Doings, nine lesbians began meeting as the Womyn’s Restaurant Project in March of 1976. They incorporated as the non-profit Ceres Inc., with the purpose of supporting the development of women’s enterprises. Their first project was a women-only eating facility housed within a membership club (the only way to legally be women- only), like the men’s clubs just down the street for Elks and Masons.
By pooling their personal funds, they were able to buy the 68-78 Masonic Street property, a small one-family house with a one story stucco storefront building next door. Donations from other local lesbians, fundraising events, and a loan from the Massachusetts Feminist Federal Credit Union in Cambridge allowed a do-over of the rundown house. With the skill and guidance of two lesbian carpenters, the collective renovated the ground floor, creating three interconnected dining areas with a counter for orders and service (no waitresses) next to the small kitchen. They built the tables, gathered an eclectic collection of fifty used dining chairs, and sewed pink cloth napkins
A name was chosen from the Judy Grahn poem, “The common woman is as common as the best of bread and will rise and will become strong.” The spelling of woman was changed “to take the man out of the word,” Laura, a collective spokesperson explained. The Common Womon Club opened December 19, 1976 to serve lunch and dinner six days a week.
1977 Common Womon Club initial policies, handout for members.
With no waitresses (which is the word we used back then), order pads were at each table. Members wrote up their orders and took them to the order/prep counter. Here, Ynestra must have been treating me to dinner.
Looking along the order counter into the small kitchen. Probably Molly in her logo T-shirt dishing something up. Thanks to Elisabeth Brook for these snapshots.
This part of the article in the Springfield Republican Apr 24, 1977 really got the food described. Jan Whitaker discovered that this coverage was further circulated by the UPI wire service and reprinted in various forms in sixteen mainstream papers across the country and into Canada. In a story published a year later in the Republican Collective members expressed their belief that mainstream coverage had focused on an alleged anti-male bias and, as a result, in interviews asked that their last names not be used.
Though the Common Womon (CWC) was many women’s first experience of vegetarian and/or the ethnic cuisine presented by occasional guest chefs, it was much more than a place to eat. The background music was by women, and CWC or next door Nutcracker’s Suite was the town’s first Olivia Records distributor. The walls were hung with rotating exhibits of local women’s art and crafts.
I don’t remember when I hung this show of my work at CWC but it’s a nice snapshot by Lis Brook showing the arches between dining areas. I was on the art exhibit committee and remember shows of member baby pictures as well as group and one women shows.
This snapshot by Lis looks like it was taken just before opening hours, with a view from one dining room, thru the other to the area with the order counter. Is that Holly coming thru the arch to set tables? Note the funky chair collection. Painting by me in corner top left was commissioned by Sarah Dreher and later used as the basis for T-shirt design by Nutcracker’s Suite.
Sunday evenings often included entertainment by local talent as well as presentations on a wide range of women’s issues. After Dyke Doings folded, the CWC membership newsletter was the sole lesbian news source in the area until the 1979 advent of the monthly newspaper the Valley Women’s Voice.
The enclosed front porch wasn’t only a place to wait when there was a line for tables. Beside an overflowing bulletin board of women’s event flyers and notices were loose leaf notebooks for housing and jobs, literature from women around the globe, and a lending library. The mismatched, worn overstuffed sofa and chairs invited one to hang out. Upstairs was the Valley Women’s Union mimeograph machine, shared with area progressive groups, and a room rented to therapists for their sessions and available for small meetings (and the occasional toke). Some of the groups that were begun by first meeting at Common Womon included Lesbians concerned with alcohol abuse, the Jewish Lesbian discussion group, the Valley Women’s Herstory Project, the lesbian Alanon meeting, and the 1979 March on Washington WMass Lesbian contingent.
CWC included in International Women’s Day coverage in Below the Salt, a supplement to the Massachusetts Daily Collegian, March 2, 1978. Holly and Marjorie P. in photos.
Within a couple years, and as the original collective of nine changed, it was found that afternoon tea was feasible, but not lunch. Business slowed significantly in the summer, as well. The collective was forced to reduce summer food service, often to nothing but the popular Sunday brunches and special seasonal efforts such as ice cream socials. Always operating on a shoe string budget, CW relied on sliding scale membership dues, fund-raising events, and sacrifice by members of the collective in order to stay open.
Artist unattributed, likely Molly or Kate. This format could be used repeatedly, pasting in that day’s menu into the frame for copying.
Special events helped pay the mortgage and basic expenses. The most popular of these may have been the wimmin’s dj’ed disco dances initially held at the Club, then expanded to the basement of the Polish American Home/Club on Pearl Street. Benefit events in collaboration with other feminist or lesbian groups at larger venues also included dances with the women’s bands Lilith and Liberty Standing at UMass, a concert by Willie Tyson at Smith College, poetry reading by Robin Morgan at Hampshire College, and a local Lesbian talent Show.
Income also came from the rental of the storefront next door at 68 Masonic St. This space, occupied in 2019 by Bela Vegetarian Restaurant was, in 1976, tenanted by the US Navy recruiters when Ceres Inc bought the property. The Navy was swiftly evicted and the space renovated for new tenants, the Valley’s first women’s karate dojo, the Nutcracker’s Suite . When, after a brief time, that enterprise became Valley Women’s Martial Arts and moved to Springfield, the building then became home to the Valley’s first feminist bookstore, Womonfyre Books. With Common Womon next door, this block in Northampton became a feminist and Lesbian beehive from 1977 to 1982. One can only imagine what the closest neighbors at the Northampton Fire Department, Christian Science Reading Room, and Bell Telephone Company were saying amongst themselves.
What was it like being part of the Common Womon Collective? Stay tuned to this blog for future posts, including personal reflections from collective member Marjorie Childers, as well as the story of CWC’s last two years and closing in the 80s.
__Dyke Doings. Northampton. Sep-Oct, Nov, Dec 1976 issues. I am missing issues V and VI, if anyone has these I would appreciate copies.
__Valley Women’s Union newsletter. Northampton. Oct 1976, Jan, Mar 1977.
__Common Womon Club. Untitled club policies mimeo. Feb 1977?
__Common Womon Club. Member info and application form. Undated, probably Feb 1977.
__The Common Womon newsletter. #2. “Progress Report” Feb 1977.
__Brown, Melissa. “’Common’ ground for feminists.” Springfield [MA] Republican. Apr. 24, 1977.
__Whitaker, Jan. Email to Kaymarion Sep. 11, 2019: “fyi: I was searching through digitized papers using Newspapers.com just now and found that a 1977 story about the Common Womon Club (much like the one in the Spfld Union) was sent out by UPI and reached 16 newspapers around the country and Ottawa Canada — in Brattleboro, Van Nuys CA, Hagerstown MD, Muncie IN, St. Joseph MO, Tampa and Fort Walton Beach FL, York PA, Pittsfield MA, Nashua NH, Nashville TN, Honolulu, Billings MT, Casper WY, and Biddeford ME.”
__Common Womon newsletter. Scattered issues 1977-79. Where is there a complete set of these?
__Brook, Elisabeth. Snapshots. 1979?
__[Raymond],Kaymarion and Letalien, Jacqueline E. The Valley Women’s Movement: A Herstorical Chronology 1968-1978. Northampton, Ceres Inc. 1978.
__Traub, Lauren. “The Uncommon Common Womon.” Below the Salt [MDC sup. UMass] 2 Mar. 1978.
__O’Neill, Molly. Missing, story in women’s words 78, the publication of the Athol Women’s Center. Lost my copy somewhere.
__Women’s Media Project newsletter. UMass/Amherst. Jul-Aug 1978.
__Associated Press. “’Common Woman [sic]’ anything but.” Sunday Republican, Springfield MA. Jul 30, 1978.
__Giudice, Angela. “The Common Womon: A Feminist Enterprise.” Fresh Ink: Campus and Community Newspaper of the pioneer valley. Northampton 1 Mar. 1979
__Carney, Maureen. “The Common Womon Keeps the Pot Boiling.” Valley Women’s Voice Sep. 1979.
__Bishop, Holly. Email correspondence. June 25, 2019.
__More on Olivia Records: https://queermusicheritage.com/olivia.html
One of the Common Womon Club original collective nine died in June of this year, and was memorialized nationally for the career she was to expand into: “Molly O’Neill, Writer Who Explored and Celebrated Food, Is Dead at 66 ” https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/17/dining/molly-oneill-dead.html . “Molly O’Neill, prizewinning food writer, dies at 66″ – https://www.washingtonpost.com/…/food/molly-oneill…food-writer…/83e1b338-913c-1…