Lysistrata was a feminist restaurant, bar and cooperative meeting space that existed in Madison, Wisconsin from 1977 - 1982. Founded by a cooperative board of directors made up of area LGBT activists, the space was named for the ancient Greek play in which women used their gender’s power to bring about peace in their city. Before Lysistrata opened, Madison feminists and lesbians were often congregating at bars that were primarily directed at gay men. Although welcoming to lesbians, spaces such as Rod’s and Going My Way were still primarily men’s bars, and the women of Madison decided to found their own bar.
As a community performance space, Lysistrata hosted local bands, artists, and poetry readings. By day, the restaurant hosted city business and leisure clientele for lunch service in the large, open and airy dining room. In the evenings, women gathered at the bar for drinks, pool, dancing, and community events. The space was the opposite of the “gay ghetto” or dark and secretive environments where women had met each other for years. Patrons describe it as beautiful, having “light wood and lots of windows,” with live plants and clean lines.
When the Madison police and fire departments were ordered to begin recruiting for women, both the police and fire chiefs began to frequent Lysistrata. Because it was filled with feminists who were not necessarily homemakers, Lysistrata was the natural starting point for recruiting efforts. It was also an impressive cross-section of women from across classes and age groups within Madison; patrons recall the clientele being quite widely varied throughout the early years of Lysistrata. The business sponsored a community softball team; the team even played a women’s team from Taycheedah prison occasionally.
Because the founders did not want their establishment to be known only as a lesbian bar, they emphasized that all feminists (of any gender) were welcome. However, lesbians (both out and closeted) naturally congregated in the accepting, safe space. The earlier years of the business were aimed at a wider audience of all genders as a liberal-leaning community space; as time went on, Lysistrata gradually become more focused on the bar-type activities. This shift caused a decline in city-wide patronage and Lysistrata began to lose money. As the original founders drifted away from the business, other community members took over and attempted to keep the restaurant open until a buyer could be found.
Just as a buyer began showing interest in Lysistrata, the building in which it was located burned to the ground in a horrific fire on January 8, 1982. Several other businesses located in the same building were also destroyed. The fire department was unable to reach Lysistrata quickly because of a huge snow and ice storm that had brought Madison to a standstill; once they reached the building, the temperatures were so far below freezing that fire hoses wouldn’t work properly to douse the fire. Investigators later concluded that the fire had been started in one of the building’s other businesses. Lysistrata was never rebuilt.
Lysistrata’s original founders were Karla Dobinski, Kay Clarenbach, Ruth Bleier, Catherine Rouse, Andrea Mote-Stelling, and Janet Brewer. Of these founders, only Dobinski is still living. Older members of Madison’s LGBT community still discuss Lysistrata among themselves, and local archives boast extensive collections of Lysistrata-related ephemera. It is remembered fondly as one of the first LGBT establishments in Madison.