Working in the CWC Collective


 by Marjorie Childers

The club was really wimminspace in downtown Northampton—what Smith College might have been.  It was a place where wimmin could go and hang out and find someone to talk with and it didn’t matter age, race, class, appearance, etc. It was a center for lots of communication about feminist events and issues.

I joined the Common Womon Collective in the early spring of 1978.  I was part of the second collective group, which was recruited when the original collective felt that the food service and community support efforts were well launched and they were ready to move on to other pursuits. Some of them stayed to oversee the Ceres Inc. business.

The application process to join the collective involved a letter or essay about one’s personal philosophy of feminism and lesbian identity, as well as an interview with collective members.  Cooking skills and restaurant experience were a part of this but only a part. I can’t quite remember all the names of the collective members.  Of course Kate Angell and I had major responsibility for things for a couple of years, and we also had several UMass graduate students. Emma Missouri was also a part of the group and others about whom I remember odd details and bad habits.

I never knew when I answered the phone who would be on the other end and what they would ask or tell me.  It could be Robin Morgan or a UMass student or Frances Crowe or anyone.  I felt very much in touch with what was going on in the area and in the country when it came to what was important to wimmin.  Some of it was purely social, which was fun, but some of it was political—female genital mutilation, for example—but it was being a part of a movement as well as cooking.

cwc collective

The Common Womon collective Sep 1979. Photograph by Kathryn Kirk and used by permission. Marjorie is at the top left. Originally published in the Valley Women’s Voice.

 

While I was cooking at the Common Womon Club as a collective member we served an evening meal every day except Monday (when the collective met,) and the Sunday night meal was usually prepared by a guest cook who was a club member. These included intro’s to a wide variety of ethnic food.  Sundays we served brunch as well as the evening meal.  I cooked for most of those brunches between 1978 and 1980.

When I think about the club and the collective, I remember all the mornings when I would unlock the door and get the food started for the day and then have all sorts of people drop in and talk.  I really learned to organize my tasks, which academics (which I was at the time) are not very good at but nurses (which I later became) have to be very good at.  I would get the bread started, then get a soup started, then get a dessert going.  The dessert would bake while the bread rose and the soup simmered.  By the time I got the bread in to bake, the soup would be done.  Then it was time to prep the entrees for the evening.  Cutting up the salad happened mid-afternoon, and the quiche would bake during that.

A typical evening meal would offer a choice between two soups, salad, three entree choices and desserts.  Among the most popular soups were butternut squash and cream of potato, and we also made a vegetarian chili.  We always had a quiche of some sort, an Italian dish such as eggplant parmigiana, and other pasta or rice-based dishes.  We often made Chinese spring rolls, and occasionally we had a fish dish.  For dessert we tried to make honey-sweetened or maple fruit pies and cobblers, but we often fell back on commercial, sugar-sweetened ice cream as a topper.  Tea, coffee and fruit juice were served.  For brunch we had purchased bagels, but we also had eggs and omelets and pancakes made to order. We always had mixed grain bread that we made on an almost daily basis.

cwc menu

I usually didn’t stay to serve dinner if I opened up, but I had the line-up ready for whoever came in at mid-afternoon for that.  I would run the menu over to the copy place before I left and always enjoyed that walk along Main Street, seeing folks and feeling connected to the business part of Northampton.

The busiest times were when there was a concert or dance featuring wimmin artists.  We would serve as many and as fast as we could so that everyone could go. These were great times to dress up and enjoy the dating scene.

 

Editor’s note: Another post from Marjorie, on CWC in 1980s, will be published in the further unwinding of the narrative.

childers-20marjorie-20nurse-20mba-1

 

 

Marjorie Childers is a Professor Emerita of Nursing at Elms College in Chicopee and former director of the nursing program there.  She is a quiltmaker and retired quilt appraiser, certified by the American Quilters Association. Currently living in a retirement community in Holyoke, she remains committed to women’s history and women’s art. She notes re. her experience at the Common Womon, “ It’s complicated. I think about the club whenever I am in the kitchen, especially when cleaning up. Some of that discipline will never leave me.”

Additional history:  Northampton’s Common Womon Club (1976-82) existed within the context of a national feminist restaurant movement. Jan Whitacker provides an overview of this movement, as well as earlier First wave feminist restaurants, in a 2013 blogpost “Women’s Restaurants.” Included are links to other related content she’s written on the 70s and about vegetarianism. https://restaurant-ingthroughhistory.com/2013/06/18/womens-restaurants/?fbclid=IwAR1w8_8sbhhyJvmNYOAXJCMC9NHcfFKyvVQEKAj98LeDp37uG2mWRFLppUc

There’s been a plethora of mainstream interest in the subject of feminist (and lesbian) food in recent years.

A wonderful post on political potlucking appeared in Atlas Obscura.com:  How Lesbian Potlucks Nourished the LGBTQ Movement: Now a queer stereotype, the lesbian potluck has radical roots” by Reina Gattuso. May 2, 2019 https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/why-do-lesbians-have-potlucks-on-pride.

The same columnist posted on a scholarly project on feminist restaurants: “The Scholar Mapping America’s Forgotten Feminist Restaurants: Challenging patriarchy, one eatery at a time” by Reina Gattuso. June 21, 2019. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/feminist-restaurants. The feminist restaurant project is quoted in the article, ” From the 1970s to the 1990s, according to Dr. Alex Ketchum, a professor of gender, sexuality, and feminist studies at McGill University, at least 250, and perhaps as many as 400, feminist restaurants, cafes, and coffeehouses opened in the U.S. and Canada. Almost all of these restaurants are gone. But for two decades, establishments from Alabama’s Steak n Eggs to the Canadian Yukon Territory’s Rendez-vous Coffeehouse challenged women’s traditional consignment to the home by reclaiming cooking for the feminist movement. The feminist restaurant was “a place where community could be built around food,” Ketchum says. “Places where cooking wasn’t antithetical to women’s liberation.”

More about this history project can be discovered at their webpage http://www.thefeministrestaurantproject.com/p/home.html. Of interest to me was inclusion of the Valley in their mapping of those hundreds of restaurants. From the updated directory;

http://www.thefeministrestaurantproject.com/p/new-directory.html

listed;

Greenfield -Green River Café (1981-1985).

Northampton -Common Womon Club Restaurant (1976-1982)*.

-Lesbian Gardens Coffeehouse and Bookstore.

-Northstar Seafood Restaurant (1989-1991).

-The Women’s Restaurant (probably referencing the Common Womon Club before it had its name) (1977).

The oldest and still existing feminist restaurant, Bloodroot in Connecticut is the subject of a documentary film released this spring (2019). Here reviewed in Variety; “ Film Review: ‘Bloodroot’; An affectionate portrait of both a long-running feminist restaurant and bookstore and its two still-active founders by Dennis Harvey https://variety.com/2019/film/reviews/bloodroot-review-1203194133/

Variety editors conjectured that the Bloodroot film was prompted by the New York Times observance of the restaurant’s 40th anniversary two years ago with a tribute article “Mixing Food and Feminism, Bloodroot Is 40 and Still Cooking” by Tejal Rao, March 14, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/14/dining/bloodroot-feminist-restaurant.html.

Bloodroot’s own webpage introduces them https://www.bloodroot.com/about

 

 

 

The Wimmin’s Restaurant Project


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. cwc logo apr 1977_edited-1As 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.

cwc polcies 1977_edited-11977 Common Womon Club initial policies, handout for members.

cwc order_edited-2

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.

cwc eb 3

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.

Srepub cwc 77This 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.

cwc eb1

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.

cwc eb2

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.

below the salt mar 2, 1978_edited-1

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.

cwc flyer 197_edited-1

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.

SOURCES:

__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…