The Dinner Party Didn’t Leave Me Fully Satisfied

The Dinner Party
Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party

I first came across The Dinner Party several years ago, probably through aimless wandering on Wikipedia. For a lover of both women’s history and referential art, it sounded like the coolest thing ever. For a long time I had a vague intention to go see it, but never got around to actually schlepping to the Brooklyn Museum. I was excited to study the piece in Feminism class, and I enjoyed doing it, but it also raised a lot of questions for me. I had hoped, the whole time, that seeing the exhibit itself would answer everything, and leave me with a clear and resolved opinion.

The experience itself was enjoyable. Although I didn’t love everything about it aesthetically, it was definitely fun to see all the place settings, to decode the symbolism, to try to glimpse the names on the floor. The runners are extremely intricate, and are interesting to examine. Overall, however, while visiting the work did make certain things clearer for me, I ultimately left the exhibit still conflicted about many others.

I will start with what I liked about the piece. I very much admire the use of china painting and textile, traditional “women’s work” considered frivolous and silly, a lower form of art. The Dinner Party throws around the concept of reclamation, and I believe that certain things are not necessarily that way. However, women were only taught “needlework and other domestic arts since one of the purposes of education for [a woman] was to teach [her] to be a good homemaker”, and they were the only creative outlets allowed most women (Rory Dicker’s A History of U.S. Feminisms). Repurposing them in order to honor women who were able to push beyond these constraints is a true reclamation. I love the elevation of such “unimportant” art forms to memorial and Art with a capital A.

The concept of a dinner party, going along with that, is a good one. Chicago makes a good point that, traditionally, it was women who created these parties but were so rarely the guests of honor. It is another true reclamation that, here, they are those guests of honor.

I love the emphasis on cohesive female history. The placing together of women of such disparate times, places, and accomplishments is powerful. The Heritage Floor, as well, where the names “correlate to each of the 39 place settings by commonality of experience, historic contribution, time period, and/or geography,” as stated on the website, shows how women share history, and grow from one another’s accomplishments. Some details, like the placement of Mary Shelley’s name directly beneath the place setting of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, brought a grin to my face.

Susan B. Anthony's plate at The Dinner Party

Not everything did, however. The piece’s most contentious element has long been its use of vaginal, or “butterfly/cunt”, imagery to represent just about every woman. I do understand that vaginas are what all women have in common, what binds us together as females. In seeking a universal symbol of femaleness, they leap quickly to mind. Unfortunately, however, vaginas come loaded with sexual and reproductive meaning, meaning that is certainly important, but also harkens back to a time when those same sexual and reproductive abilities were all that women were considered good for.

It is certainly true that phallic imagery is more socially accepted, and that male (and female) painters usually (but not always) painted nude women without their vaginas showing, oft-cited reasons for the use of the imagery. But why is the vagina so important to reclaim? Vaginas serve two essential purposes in the continuation of mankind, they are great, and they belong to a woman and whomever she chooses to share with. They are not, however, the end-all be-all of being female.

To reduce the women of The Dinner Party to vaginas is going entirely against what these women struggled to do in their lifetimes: be taken seriously as artists, or as advocates, or as rulers, or as people, without having their femaleness get in the way. That these women were women is a part of their legacy, and an important one. It makes what they were doing all the more impressive. But at the same time, it is not the most important part of their legacy. It is secondary to their real work, whether science or advocacy or art. The Dinner Party seems to reinforce the notion that whether scientist, writer, or queen, all women are just vaginas in the end.

Vaginas aside, The Dinner Party is art created with a special social/political purpose. Virginia Woolf says that “it was a thousand pities that the woman who could write like [Lady Winchilsea], whose mind was tuned to nature and reflection, should have been forced to anger and bitterness” (Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own). After all, “one has only to open her poetry to find her bursting out in indignation against the position of women” (Woolf). Here I disagree. Political art is art. A good poet is a good poet, whether the subject is nature or love or politics. In any case, the poetry should be judged on artistic merit, but good art is absolutely allowed to have been made for a social or political point.

One can watch The Crucible without knowing about McCarthyism; it’s still a good play. Knowing the political context enhances it, but it doesn’t make or break the experience. Ditto for many protest songs or the French Revolution art of Jacques-Louis David. On the other hand, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner make their points and have their aesthetic pleasures, but they’re not really great art. The lion’s share of their merit comes from their historical importance and as relics of the time in which they were created.

The Dinner Party is art, certainly. But it is not good art. It cannot be divorced in any way from its feminist purpose. If you took away that meaning, you would be left with some bits that are extremely beautiful, but much that is ugly or hokey. The symbolism is extremely obvious (a tiny palette for artist Artemisia Gentileschi, a tiny knife for Judith; Hatshepsut’s plate is Egypt-themed, etc.), except for when it is “ironic.”

Emily Dickinson's plate at The Dinner Party

I firmly believe that irony and humor have places in art; irony in a piece of art as deeply serious as The Dinner Party, however, is just a little weird. So Emily Dickinson, a woman whose work is absolutely without frills, is memorialized with a lace vagina for the sake of irony, and to represent what she was constricted by. Why is this preferable to memorializing her with something that, you know, genuinely represents who she was and what her art is like? Is it ironic that Virginia Woolf, a woman who believed “any emphasis, either of pride or of shame, laid consciously on the sex of a writer is not only irritating but superfluous” is being celebrated as having “illuminated a path toward a new, woman-formed literary language” (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party)? Or that Georgia O’Keeffe, a woman who spent her entire life protesting that her paintings were not of vaginas, is immortalized as a vagina herself?

When I consider my qualms, I understand why I can be so detached. When it comes down to it, I’m seeing The Dinner Party in the 21st century. When it was first being created in the 1970s, Judy Chicago stated that the point of The Dinner Part was to “end the ongoing cycle of omission in which women were written out of the historical record.” In the intervening years, many of the women represented in the table have, rightfully, entered mainstream history. Sacajawea and Sojourner Truth are given something closer to the attention they deserve (I’ve gone to a liberal school my entire life, however, and so I can’t speak for everywhere). Georgia O’Keeffe has her own museum. There have been films on Hildegard von Bingen and Hypatia in the last couple of years.

In the 1970s, however, women were largely absent from the official versions of history. Women’s studies and the rediscovery of women of importance were just starting to happen. Most of the women on the table were completely obscure. That a woman was creating a work of art on such a monumental scale, dedicated to so many amazing women, was a revolutionary act. I have said that some political art has more merit as history than art; I believe The Dinner Table, as a watershed moment for Feminist art and a major artistic work of the Second Wave, is one of these.

The Dinner Table is not just history itself, however; it’s also a history class. At the end of the day, it gets out the names of many women who are still obscure; the symbolism particular to each woman, while often not successful as art, is fascinating and serves as a highly informative history lesson. The piece, for all that I don’t like about it, perpetuates the names of these women and their place in the public consciousness. Whatever it fails at, it succeeds there. And that is the most important thing.

5 thoughts on “The Dinner Party Didn’t Leave Me Fully Satisfied

  1. I agree with your point that using vaginal imagery is going “entirely against what these women struggled to do in their lifetimes.”

    We shouldn’t have to say female artist of female writer, we should just be able to say artist or writer and not assume that it is a man.

    One time i saw this documentary and Chris Rock said that black people will become equal with white people when we are allowed to do badly. Meaning: a white person may be able to have a good job and do minimal work without consequence or ridicule, but if a black person has a good job they have to work extra hard to go against the stereotypes that they are lazy workers. The same with women…

    We need to get to a point where women don’t have to be exceptionally great in order to be recognized as writers or politicians. Furthermore, Ileana said that she could work harder than her brother and still make less money than him. You must also consider their careers, but lets say they had the same position at the same job… She may work 20 times harder than him, but get the same pay, or maybe even less because she’s a woman.

    Women should not feel the need to work harder than men in order to be successful in life.

  2. I think that Judy Chicago chose vagina to show the world the true self of women. Because vagina were always covered, because it’s somewhat sacred and the only time they were used were for reproduction, but clearly there is more to it. So I think that’s what she was trying to show, rather than finding a common point. She was not trying to regroup women, because if she did I don’t think that the Dinner party would have been separated into waves. It also showed how women stated being more in more themselves, by the 3rd wave and that is why the plates became in a way 3rd dimension.

  3. I do not agree with your argument that “to reduce the women of The Dinner Party to vaginas is going entirely against what these women struggled to do in their lifetimes.” I found that using vaginas to depict powerful, strong and influential women in the beautiful way that Judy Chicago did in The Dinner Party was a breath of fresh air and empowering. We live in a society that sees the vagina as almost dirty with commercials for douches and Summers Eve ramped. I found the butterfly/cunt imagery as less of a way to overshadow their work with their femaleness, but rather a way to break free from society’s negative connotations with vaginas, a purpose which was very much akin to Chicago’s objective of The Dinner Party, to take back women’s history in an empowering way.

  4. I find the fact that “The general vaginal theme of each plate stirred up a lot of debate regarding the piece and where it should be shown because of its ‘inappropriateness’” that you spoke of in your post ludicrous and sexist. Does anyone find Michelangelo’s sculpture David “inappropriate”? Not on such a broad scale, as was seen with Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, even though the phallic imagery in Michelangelo’s sculpture David is exponentially more blatant that then vaginal imagery in Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party.

  5. I loved your interpretation of the medium used in the dinner party. Something i completely forgot to mention yet there is so much in just that conversation. Why china plates, “The Dinner Party throws around the concept of reclamation, and I believe that certain things are not necessarily that way”. There could be a whole blog post written about just the medium used in the dinner party. I also liked your examination on the subject matter of Vagina imagery- this is something I focused on as well

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