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On a lively tour, reminders of feminist history in Cambridge

Bailey Haines, a sophomore at Lesley University, took part in a guided tour highlighting feminist history in the Inman Square neighborhood.Erin Clark for the Boston Globe

CAMBRIDGE — Nearly three decades before chef-owner Ana Sortun built her reputation in this space, the upscale restaurant known as Oleana was a gourmet vegetarian spot that hosted radical female performers like Andrea Dworkin and musician Alix Dobkin.

Called Bread and Roses Restaurant, in honor of the 1912 Lawrence textile strike led by women, the feminist cultural center was financed by stock shares sold to 100 women investors. The restaurant donated meals to the city’s domestic violence shelter every Sunday and attracted the curious, from travelers to anthropologist Margaret Mead, recalled Pat Hynes.

“It was thrilling,” Hynes, who was part of the venture, told a tour group about Mead’s visit. “A few anthropology majors were cooking in the kitchen and just nearly passed out. . . . And as I watched her, sort of wordless, I thought, it looks like we may be the next unique subject for her next book.”


Hynes was one of several women who turned a walking tour of Inman Square into a spontaneous oral history project. Nearly 30 people, including six men, had gathered along Hampshire Street on a recent evening for a rush-hour stroll, to hear the stories behind familiar buildings as the sun dipped and bicyclists whizzed by. Tour guide Kimm Topping is the women’s commission researcher who developed the program, working with the Cambridge Historical Commission. The tour will remain available online through the database of the Cambridge Women’s Heritage Project.

Though the guided tours have ended for the season, the map is online for self-guided strolls, along with rich historical context. The commission plans to branch out into other neighborhoods of the city next year.

Cambridge was one of many places where second-wave feminism was finding its roots in the 1970s, and this stretch of Hampshire Street was a hub of activity. Here, the Women’s Community Health Center, which provided abortions and gynecological services, was “conceived in 1973, the same year of the landmark Supreme Court decision affirming a woman’s right to an abortion,” according to the guide notes. Since organizers believed health care should be not be a for-profit venture, they got funding support from the community, including performances by singers and poets, a grant from the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective (which authored “Our Bodies, Ourselves”), and even the public sale of speculums (yes, the kind used in vaginal exams).


Here, New Words Bookstore featured feminist and hard-to-find children’s books, lesbian fiction, books on domestic violence; and readings by authors from Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press. The stretch also featured Goddard-Cambridge Graduate Program in Social Change, an extension of the parent program of Goddard College in Vermont, which in 1970 hosted its first women’s history “ovular” — the school’s feminist rephrasing of the term, “seminar.” An ovular on lesbian culture in 1976 caused such a stir that the school was accused of trying to indoctrinate students as lesbians and Marxists.

The space now known as Beauty’s Pizza used to be the Child Care Resource Center, which helped find and research affordable day care options, the precursor to the state’s system for subsidized care vouchers.

The Women’s Law Collective — a legal commune run entirely by women — raised awareness about women’s legal issues and helped draft the law that allowed domestic violence survivors to get restraining orders and support.


And the Massachusetts Feminist Federal Credit Union opened in 1975, following the passage of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, and Topping explained the significance: “Before 1974, women couldn’t take out loans without a husband cosigning.”

The tour was a stroll down memory lane for women like Patty Nolan, a Cambridge School Committee member and candidate for City Council, who remembered meetings of her college feminist group at Bread and Roses and discovering early works on intersectionality at New Words.

And it was a history lesson brought to life for students who got extra credit for attending. Brooke Bonar, 20, a Suffolk University student with a minor in gender studies, couldn’t quite believe she was hearing directly from 1970s Cambridge feminists.

“The ’70s,” she said, “seem so long ago to me.”

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.