A Seat at the Table for Feminist Voices: Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party”

This past Friday afternoon our feminism class toured Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party” at the Brooklyn Museum.

As you enter the installation, you walk down a hallway turning left. Along the hallway, the ceiling is decorated with beautifully embroidered banners. These banners have sayings stitched into each of them, forming a feminist biblical reference. This is evident through references to Eden and language such as “all that was divided merged,” have obvious Genesis links. The fact that all references to gender are also revised to say “she,” seems to give a new interpretation of the words of the Bible.

We began the tour by discussing the different uses for a table and understanding the layout of a table in terms of how it signifies the importance of your position in social interactions. The fact that this art piece is shaped as a triangle is unique as we often see shapes such as circles as more community oriented. But each side of this table seems to signify a different era of early feminist history. The first side of the table represents pre-history to the Roman Empire, the second leg of the table the change from the Roman Empire to the Reformation, and the third side of the table carries into the 1970’s.

It is also clear that the first half of the women represented, as you walk counter-clockwise around the piece, lived in a predominantly matriarchal society, where the later women are living in a more patriarchal one. The fact that the table is shaped as a triangle also means that there is no head of the table, no leading source in feminism activist history. It is an effort that these women at the table have all helped shape in some way, therefore earning their right to help define the movement’s foundation by receiving “a place at the table.”

Each side of the table has 13 place holders at it, equaling 39 women representing early feminism in total. These numbers also allude to the Last Supper. The Last Supper had 13 persons present at it, and the three different eras of early feminism each have 13 women of their own as well. The plate representing each woman and her personal feminist efforts are also shown, but also identical goblets and utensils that further help represent the sense of unity between these women as they all are shown together, ‘dining’ for a just cause they all believe in.

The plates themselves all evoke vaginal imagery, and this imagery is a clear and main choice of Chicago’s. The fact that the women are represented by their reproductive organs implies the power of reclaiming their bodies. They are able to reclaim parts of themselves that truly make them female. The vagina is also part of the body which from a male artist perspective was not so focused on. Many artists from Judy Chicago’s time, were male and although many focused on the naked female body, none so centered on the vagina as Chicago’s radical piece does. This piece pushes the barriers in terms of how it depicts women, important and respected women at that.

There is also an incline in the plates as you move counter-clockwise around the table. Each plate slowly rises and also becomes more 3-D as the plates enamel pushes out of the flat surface. This is also a very representative choice of the artist as it depicts the awareness and power of the movement, the strength and support the women had behind her feminist cause in her time frame in terms of “advocating equality of the sexes.” It is important to notice the gradual incline that starts with the flat straight-backed plate of the primordial goddess and ends with the bursting full plate of Georgia O’Keeffe.

There are 999 golden names of mythical or historical women inscribed on the floor tiles beneath the table that also stretch into the center. These women spread from under the women who also lived in their historical era. Although their work may vary, their sense of linkage in terms of their fight for woman’s rights is what binds them through the art piece.

The art piece overall is full of beautiful color and delicate embroidery, the use of golden thread and delicate work obviously poured into the piece truly represents these women and their achievements marvelously. I think that the representation of these women with such respect and admiration shines them in a new celebratory light, which most of them did not feel while living in their era. They are all united, nonetheless, under the ideals of a “female utopia.” I visited this art piece when I was younger and went around picking out which flowery plate I thought was the prettiest. To be able to come back later and look at the plates through a new lens, with more understanding and historical background to help me find a meaning in the art deeper than the colorful flower petals, was a powerful experience.

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