The Dinner Party: 39 Important Women

Sojourner Truth's plate on Judy Chicago's "The Dinner Party."

Walking into the room featuring Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, I was amazed. Undeniably, the piece was breathtaking. Everything including the size and shape, the floor underneath, the lighting of the room, and each plate and table runner, was very well thought out. It is not surprising that Chicago worked on this work of art for five years. Furthermore, it seemed as though we would not be able to fully appreciate it without spending the same amount of time observing it.

When describing the importance and purpose of The Dinner Party, Chicago stated, “because we are denied knowledge of our history, we are deprived of standing upon each other’s shoulders and building upon each other’s hard earned accomplishments. Instead we are condemned to repeat what others have done before us and thus we continually reinvent the wheel. The goal of The Dinner Party is to break this cycle.”

Women are given a minimal place in history, and Judy Chicago wanted to change this. To get a place at the table is to get a place in history. Chicago believes it’s important to know about our past, in order to understand the present and determine the future.

Observing the artwork, the first question that came to my mind was: how did Judy Chicago decide what women were going to be included in the dinner party? Each side of the table included 13 women from a certain time period, for a total of 39 women. In addition, the floor features the names of 999 additional women.  How did Judy Chicago decide whom to include at the table, on the floor or not at all? For example, Judy Chicago decided to include Georgia O’Keeffe at the table and not to include one of the leaders of the woman’s movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton. I believe that this might be because of personal reasons, which we will not be able to fully understand. However, I do believe that Judy Chicago tried to include different women, thus producing a diverse group of activists (some who never saw themselves as feminists). She included women from different time periods, with different beliefs, and who were active in different ways; artists, musicians, writers and more.

Researching and writing about Sojourner Truth earlier this week, made me very excited to see her plate and how Chicago portrayed her. Sojourner Truth was the first black woman to speak out against slavery and discrimination against women, and to connect the two. She argued that “if women want any rights more than they’s got, why don’t they just take them, and not be talking about it.” She was like no other and similarly to her actions, Sojourner Truth’s plate unquestionably stands out.

First of all, it is one of the only ones that does not contain vaginal imagery. Instead it features three faces; one that seems to be crying, one that seems to be screaming, and one that looks like the face of an animal (possibly a lion). The colors used for the plate and the tablecloth are mostly yellow and brown. The table runner is a reference to African origins of quilting and its history in the US. The faces portray the pain that African American women have endured in the United States.

Some of my classmates mentioned the noticeable differences between Sojourner Truth’s plate and all the other plates. Our tour guide told us that this has been seen as controversial by some. Personally, I would like to ask Chicago what were her reasons behind this distinction. Nonetheless, I saw this as a very powerful plate. I believe that the message of pain, hardships, and sorrow certainly came across. As a matter of fact, the uniqueness of the plate was what made it stand out. While a lot of the plates might have seemed repetitive, Truth’s was one of a kind; just like her.

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