One Movement, Two Different Dinner Tables

The Dinner Party Exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum | Photo used with permission.

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?

A library card made in honor of Sojourner Truth. Photo used with permission.

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.

Cartoon found on http://themoderatevoice.com/18465/the-obama-racial-division-speech-success-or-failure-with-reaction-roundup/

 

5 thoughts on “One Movement, Two Different Dinner Tables

  1. I was also very angry that out of the 39 plates there were only two plates dedicated to women of color – i also wonder why people say there are only 2 of color when Hatshepsut has an ankh on her runner, suggesting that she was Egyptian – but, anyway, i really enjoyed your piece.

    I agree with a lot of your points and we covered the same aspect of racism within the Dinner Party. I really think there was no excuse to not including more brown people, i liked your point that most likely brown people had to fight even harder to have their voices heard than white people because they were struggling with racism on top of sexism.

    I think we are not alone when we question the lack of “color” in the Dinner Party. Some may say, “Well at least it’s a step forward for women,” but too often there is been a divide between women and other classifications of those women. We are too often competing and making our own oppression superior to that of other peoples’ oppressions.

  2. It’s so interesting how you formulated your thoughts. I remember when I asked you what your post was going to be about and you answered on the fact that there were not a lot of women of color presented, I imagined you writing an angry post. However, it’s nice to find out that it was not the fact. I love that you compared the way a black boy grows to the way of white boy does. And you said that maybe that was the reason why black were women were mistreated. However, white men would still mistreat black women during that time.

  3. I understand where people who criticize the overwhelming whiteness of The Dinner Party come from, and I agree that the number of women of color represented is too low. At the same time, however, I think that in light of the overwhelming amount of history Judy Chicago was trying to condense into 39 place settings, and the fact that she was focusing solely on the Western world, the lack of racial diversity at the table is comprehensible, if regrettable. I also don’t think that Susan B. Anthony deserves the level of condemnation she gets for that quote. Intersectionality was something no one, at her time, imagined. The goal was to make a major legal change in getting women the vote. Many black men were disenfranchised to begin with; to try to fight for everything at once would probably have been impossible. While the Suffragettes didn’t fight for everybody explicitly, their eventual victory would benefit everybody.

  4. I love your critique of Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party. I completely agree that though all of the women represented are amazing and deserving of the recognition that The Dinner Party gives them, women of color are completely and blatantly underrepresented. The cartoon you added at the end of you post was an interesting way to leave your reader. I like how it alludes to the fact that, though many Americans don’t have the same past, we all have the same future that we are striving towards.

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