Friday, December 16, 2011

Grace and Rubies Restaurant

North Linn Street today
Grace and Rubies Restaurant

Location: 209 North Linn Street, Iowa City, Iowa, USA

Opened: 1976

Closed: 1978

Grace and Rubies was a woman-only private club and restaurant. Years after it closed, co-founder Sue Gibson had this to say about Grace and Rubies and its importance as womyn's space:

"Women of the present time may not understand that men had a way of taking over, of filling the spaces of classrooms, meetings and areas of recreation with their concerns and plans and often, louder voices.  Grace and Rubies [a women's-only restaurant in town in the 70s] provided a place where women could go their ideas and feelings with other women and to enjoy one small space away from men." 

Other women associated with Grace and Rubies include Susan J. Norman, who was on the board. Her papers are preserved at the Iowa Women's Archives at the University of Iowa. Grace and Rubies is also mentioned in the Jill Jack papers, also at the University of Iowa.

Perhaps the most comprehensive description of Grace and Rubies comes from a 1977 article published in the University of Iowa newspaper. This is how young journalism student Lynne Cherry described the place itself: 

The club is located in an older, two-story house at 309 N. Linn St. Plants are located throughout the building and any wall can be used to display members' artwork.

Downstairs are a kitchen, two dining rooms connected by a small chamber lined with bulletin boards. On the boards hang handwritten notices for such things as a club meeting, a costume party, intermural flag football and a women's clinic. The dining rooms are crowded with tables, dimly lit and rather drafty, yet they are made cozy by the feeling of comradeship among the members and the cheerful wisecracks issuing from the kitchen.

Another dining room, a bathroom and a reading room housing a small library are upstairs. The library consists of two bookcases of donated books, mostly by and-or about women, and some feminist newspapers.

Grace and Rubies acting manager Ginny Blair explained why women joined the place:

Women usually join Grace and Rubies because they "feel at home" there and have a "sense of belonging, of having something in common," Blair said.

Others join, she added "because we have a reputation for great soups." The restaurant serves a variety of alcoholic beverages, natural foods, soups, sandwiches and vegetables.

So what did it take to join this wonderful place? Put it this way. It wasn't like a man trying to break into the Bohemian Grove or the Augusta Golf Club:

Any female over the age of ten can become a lifetime member of Grace and Rubies by reading and understanding the club's bylaws and paying 50 cents.

(Many years later, Lynne Cherry blogged about her memories of this article here.)

Of course, even in the 1970s, the simple, non-elitist, woman-only membership policy at Grace and Rubies roused the ire of the powers-that-be. So it wasn't long before the Iowa City Council got dragged into a fight over whether the membership policy was "discriminatory." The argument: Grace and Rubies didn't charge enough to be a real private club! Dyke: A Quarterly had this rather witty response to the issue back in the spring of 1976:

....Meanwhile, back in Iowa City, Grace & Rubies Restaurant is still alive, kicking and struggling to get out from under while the City's new mayor, a woman, instructs the human relations commission to investigate the legality of the restaurant's policy of refusing membership (and admittance) to men. The outcome of the investigation is unknown, but if it takes the commission as long to investigate Grace & Rubies as it does to investigate sex discrimination in employment claims, the restaurant will be around for a number of years, no matter what the outcome.

The Iowa City Public Library maintains a vertical file of materials documenting the legal struggles of Grace and Rubies. See here and here. Eventually, the commission ruled in the favor of Grace and Rubies.

But that doesn't mean that men finally left them alone or respected their space.

Like many male artists and writers, then budding novelist T.C. Boyle--while still a student at the Iowa Writers' Workshop--became obsessed with womyn's space and his perceived "exclusion" from it. In May 1977, he published a short story called "The Women's Restaurant"--a story that explored his narcissistic fixation on Grace and Rubies and his unrelenting desire to invade that space. As noted in a published list of Iowa City-inspired fiction,

Grace and Rubie's on North Linn Street in Iowa City in the mid-seventies inspired a short story about a man determined to eat in their restaurant. "It is a women's restaurant. Men are not permitted. Women go there to be in the company of other women, to sit in the tasteful rooms beneath the ancient revolving fans and the cool green of spilling plants. . ."

And where was this story originally published? In Penthouse! A "space" where women's participation was--and is--largely limited to the prone position. Oh, the brutal irony....What else do you possibly need to know about how obtuse, hypocritical, and privileged these idiotic male artistes really are?

And that's not even going into the dangers that Grace and Rubies faced in being exposed to a pornography-obsessed male audience--even in lightly fictionalized form. Indeed, Boyle's story succeeded in exposing, redefining, and highlighting all womyn's spaces to this audience as nothing more than pornographic girl-on-girl fantasies for the male gaze. As such, it's hard not to argue that this story--and the way in which it was published and distributed--is really part of men's ongoing assault against womyn's spaces that they cannot directly own, control, manage, infiltrate at will, or profit by.

And here's the proof of how the relative strengths of women's spaces and men's spaces are completely and totally unequal. Grace and Rubies vanished within two years. With its 50 cent membership fees and ongoing legal struggles, I seriously doubt that any women associated with this venture made any profit whatsover. On the other hand, Penthouse, which has been around since 1965, is still going strong. If anything, it has become more violent and overtly misogynist over the years. And when its founder died in 2010, he was one of the wealthiest men in the U.S.

Today, Grace and Rubies' former location is occupied by the Guitar Foundation.

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