As a young activist, going to see Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party could only be described as an emotional experience. I felt empowered yet angry. To see the plates of these powerful women and learning about them in a way that I never could have in elementary/middle school or simply though reading a textbook. Because of Judy Chicago, these women have finally been given the chance to be recognized and to sit at a table where they could be respected. But, as I looked around this beautifully lit, triangle-shaped table and its intricate place settings, I noticed that out of the thirty-nine plates, only two of them belonged to women of color. Now, this is where the anger kicked in. There are plenty of women of color who have been erased from our history. Do they not deserve the same respect?
Women of color have been fighting to have their voices heard for centuries (maybe even harder than many of the white women represented) being that they had at least two systems going against them—sexism and racism (not to mention the others that many were forced to endure as well—classism, homophobia, etc.) So why would they not be represented? I’m not saying that Judy Chicago is racist by any means, but could it have been because of the time period that she grew up in (being that it was a very racist one)? Could it have been because not that many women of color were included in the conversation? Or could it have been because Chicago was trying to artistically represent the racial divide between white, middle-class feminists and feminists who were women of color (which existed much throughout the first and second waves of feminism)? I don’t have a complete answer to this question but let’s explore it for a bit.
When we asked our tour guide this very question, she responded by saying that Judy Chicago was “working within her parameters.” She explained that there were so many women that Chicago could have probably chosen from that she had to somehow narrow down her options. Another thing that she said that seemed to catch my attention was that women of color “weren’t always sitting at the same table.” As I learned while reading Rory Dicker’s A History of U.S. Feminisms, women of color (specifically Black Feminists) and white middle-class feminists weren’t always on the same page in terms experiences and how to solve the problem. Dicker wrote, “feminism is the political theory and practice that struggles to free all women” (Dicker). Unfortunately, not all feminists throughout the many waves of feminism felt the same way. The movement’s very own Susan B. Anthony stated, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work for or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.” So, how is it that feminism was to liberate “all women” yet one of the movement’s leaders said that she would “cut her arm off” before she would fight a system of oppression that wasn’t her own? Doesn’t this defeat the whole purpose of intersectionality and the idea that feminism was to free all women?
Going back to Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, the only two women who had their own plates were Sacajawea and Sojourner Truth. Both were incredible women who went against all the odds and society to become the powerful women that they are recognized to be today. Sojourner Truth, specifically, is the epitome of what I am trying to prove here. In the blog, Sojourner Truth—Well Ain’t She A Woman, written by my fellow classmate Surayya, there was a quote said by Sojourner Truth from her speech, Ain’t I a Woman: “That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman?” Here, Truth is saying that even though she is a woman, somehow that is completely ignored because she is African American. The politeness and chivalry that many men are taught to show toward women somehow calculate to only be shown to white women. This difference happens somewhere between being taught manners as a young boy to whipping your black slave until she passed out, which is exactly what Sojourner Truth had to live through. “It is like saying “American citizens are wealthy and white and ruthless. I am poor black and considerate and Ain’t I an American?” (Surayya, Sojourner Truth—Well Ain’t She A Woman).
Even though I have sat here and thought through this question, there is no way that anybody but Judy Chicago herself could come up with an explanation to my initial question. However, I have never thought that it was for racist reasons. It came from society’s unwillingness to include everybody in the same conversation. There is always some divide whether it is in the workplace, on the street or within a movement. This lack of representation of women of color doesn’t speak to how Chicago thought but to how society tells everybody to think, which is that a line of superiority will always exist.