Comics fans without super body-heating powers recently braved a frosty night in Philadelphia to attend a book club meeting at Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse. The topic, “The Life of Captain Marvel,” was timely. “Captain Marvel” was swooping into movie theaters on March 8, the same date as International Women’s Day in the same month as Women’s History Month.
The lone white guy in the predominantly female group interrupted the discussion to share an observation. “I am going to assume that I am the only heterosexual white male sitting in this room,” he said.
A quick scan of the shelves, couches and cafe proved HWM correct. In addition to Wonder Woman, America, Molly Danger, Perdy, Harriet Tubman (the dragon-slaying one) and Doctor Aphra, the store’s owner, Ariell Johnson, was also in the house. The former accounting student at Temple University is the only African American woman to own and run a comics business on the East Coast.
To quote Captain Marvel: “In that moment, every little girl flies.”
Amalgam is one of a dozen stops featured in “A Feminist City Guide to Philadelphia,” part of a new series produced by Unearth Women. Nikki Vargas, Elise Fitzsimmons and Kelly Lewis founded the media company last year to fill a void in the travel industry. According to Vargas, women represent 70 percent of the travel consumer base and make 85 percent of trip-purchasing decisions. And yet, men dominate the travel publication field.
“The travel media covers the industry in a blanketed way,” said the 31-year-old Vargas, who has worked at several travel media start-ups, “but female travelers have different concerns.”
The founders unveiled the website last June and released the first print issue of the quarterly magazine in September. The publication combines Laz-y-Girl armchair reads, such as a profile of the Black Mambas, an all-female corps who combat rhino poachers in South Africa, with “You Go, Girl!” destination pieces, such as a feature on Germany’s wine country. The company includes one “Feminist City Guide” per issue and posts dozens more online, including Mumbai, Johannesburg, San Diego and Kathmandu.
“We want to show an alternative side to the cities by highlighting the female business owners, sommeliers, restaurateurs and historical figures who shaped the city,” Vargas said.
To experience the matriarchal makeover of the City of Brotherly Love, I caught an early train to Philadelphia and arrived during the morning sugar rush at Cake Life Bake Shop. I met co-owner Lily Fischer in the buttercream-white store lit by repurposed vintage whisks. We grabbed a table by a glass case full of towering cakes and rewound the tape to 2000, when Lily met Nima Etemadi at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. Years later, the friends reunited in a Food Network kitchen, where they competed for the championship on “Cupcake Wars.” From a second-place cupcake, a bakery was born.
Philadelphia has no shortage of bakeries, but many are rooted in Old World traditions. For Cake Life, Lily and Nima focused on a new wave of flavors and designs, such as the black-and-gold, geode-inspired honey lavender cake that Jay-Z ordered for Beyoncé for her birthday. In addition, Lily, a working mother, and Nima, a transgender man, wanted to provide a safe and supportive space for customers of all persuasions.
“Cake is gender-blind,” said Lily, whose staff is about two-thirds female.
I asked Lily, who was nine months pregnant with her second child, to assemble a to-go box for me. She chose an “everything” croissant stuffed with caramelized onion cream cheese and sprinkled with bagel seasoning; a berries and cream pop-tart; a chocolate chip sea salt cookie with walnuts; and a slice of coconut cake, because “cake is appropriate anytime of the day.” She also threw in a piece of quiche with broccoli rabe, tomatoes, caramelized onions and ricotta.
“You need a little protein,” said Lily, a nurturing mother to everyone — family member, employee, neighbor, stranger — who walks through the door.
The Moore College of Art & Design has stayed true to the 170-year-old mission of its founding mother, Sarah Worthington Peter. The country’s first and only visual arts college for women remains the first and only of its kind. About 500 women are enrolled in the undergraduate program (the graduate school accepts both genders), and several times a year, the Galleries at Moore displays their work in such art forms as illustration, interior design, fashion, fine arts and photography. This spring, for instance, the gallery will hold the MFA Thesis Exhibition and the Annual Student Show (March 30-April 13) and the Senior Show (April 25-May 18). In addition, every three years, the instructors take over the exhibit space. The Faculty Triennial Exhibition, which closed on March 16, featured nearly 50 pieces including Nasheli Juliana Ortiz González’s pantsuit with a political message revealed through 3-D glasses and Kelli S. Williams’s stop-motion animation piece, which stars a blue-braided African American teen named Tru.
“The identity of an all-women’s college is always present,” said Matt Kalasky, education and programs manager at the Galleries. “It is baked into the interdisciplinary study of design and fine arts."
The college store goes beyond the standard campus goods of shirts and mugs. The Art Shop only carries pieces by current and former students — about 130 of them. Arlene Renee Finston (’56), who makes romantic hats befitting a Renoir boating party, represents the old guard. Kellen Wardwell (2021), who is majoring in animation and game arts, is the future, though her crocheted creatures are charmingly analog. Art Shop manager Suzanne Kopko (’93), who sews purses with collage images and recycled materials, showed me one of the store’s most popular items: Little Rude blank notebooks with snarky inscriptions by her classmate, Dee Collins. Last year’s top sellers were “Things I Can’t Say Out Loud” and “Politicians I Want to Punch in the Face.”
The guide lists four eating spots, but due to time and appetite constraints I could only squeeze in three meals. (I had to skip Fork, the Old City establishment co-founded by Ellen Yin.) Jezabel Careaga was not at Jezabel’s Argentine Cafe and Bakery when I dropped by for lunch, but I didn’t need to see her to sense her. The self-taught chef transported the dishes from her childhood in northwest Argentina — empanadas, medialunas, tartas de choclo, pastafrola — to her adulthood in Philadelphia.
“I was raised around food,” she told me a few days later by phone. “I have been making alfajores since I was 5 years old. My mother always made alfajores and pastafrola for my birthday.”
In addition to the menu, Jezabel also designed and built the corian counters and wood furnishings in the restaurant, down to the cutting boards and paper-towel holder in the bathroom. The impetus for learning woodworking: She had an empty house and needed to fill it.
“I wanted designer furniture but I couldn’t afford it,” she said, “so I made my own.”
In early summer, Jezabel plans to expand with a furniture store selling her homemade pieces. She also created the “If My Grandma Were to Cook for You Lunch and Dinner” series, a monthly event that invites chefs to share the food of their abuelas.
“I just wanted to bring their souls to the table,” she said.
Fortunately, many people, past and present, can fit around her tables.
On the mile-long East Passyunk Avenue, women own 40 percent of the businesses, double the citywide figure. Elissa Kara, owner of Nice Things Handmade, is one of the 40 percent. As late afternoon shoppers browsed her wares, she left her position behind the counter to join me on the couch overlooking the commercial strip. Her shop was as cozy as a friend’s living room, and I was half-expecting her to plop one of her knit hats on my head to warm me up.
Elissa opened the store nine years ago in honor of her late mother, a stylish South Philly girl who wore big sunglasses and an even bigger smile.
Nice Things carries the works of 50 to 75 artists, most of whom are local or women or both. There are crocheted dinosaurs and smiling potted cactus by Charlotte Ryan, a retired librarian whose daughter, Sarah, sells her illustrations of cute critters here. “My Lil’ Cheesesteak” onesies by BonBonBaby Apparel. Upcycled fingerless cashmere gloves by Sardine Clothing. Badass Women calendars by Us & We Art. And — collect them all! — Flaming Idols’s votive candles of such gender-bending personalities as the Golden Girls, Lady Gaga, Ellen, Frida, Frank Ocean and, because we are in Philly, Gritty — the Flyers’ mascot.
After touring her shop, Elissa offered to escort me next door to Miss Demeanor, a clothing store owned by Kate and Julia Grassi, a mother-and-daughter duo. A male customer was searching for a gift, and Elissa told him she would be right back. Then she left him alone with all those women.
Not all of the recommendations in the feminist guide are helmed by women. However, a similar ethos binds them. V Street, which is owned by married chefs and owners Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby, promotes a plant-based diet. Philly AIDS Thrift distributes the money it raises from selling, say, Crock-Pots, golf clubs and wedding gowns to grants and organizations dedicated to fighting AIDS and HIV. To date, the store has donated more than $2.5 million.
At the Philly Improv Theater, I learned to not judge a comedy troupe by its girlish name. The performers with the two groups, Big Princess and High Fashion, were mixed, though the women smashed gender binarism in their roles as a blade of grass and a lawn mower. For an all-female group, a theater employee suggested Hooch, whose comediennes perform on Saturdays. He also handed me a postcard for the Bechdel Test Fest, a comedy festival that is held, of course, in March.
The three-night event, which was inspired by the lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel, provides women, transgenders and other marginalized performers with a platform to express themselves and crack up audiences. To participate, however, they must fit the criteria.
To my surprise, I discovered that I had passed the Bechdel Test. Thanks to the feminist guide, my Philadelphia trip incorporated at least two female characters who both had names, and we discussed topics other than men.