By Rachel Williams
As a part of the Women’s History Accelerated Program, the inaugural class marked the end of the summer seminar, The Usable Past: Introduction to Practical Applications of Historical Knowledge of Women and Gender, with an independent study project. My classmates and I selected very diverse subject areas and had the benefit of sharing our topics with each other. Little did I know when I started my research on feminist art, that my subject would lead me to a surprising small world connection.
In my paper entitled, “Who wants to go to The Dinner Party? An Examination of Receptions to Feminist Art,”*** I examined how the reception of Judy Chicago’s 1970s feminist art installation The Dinner Party has varied over the years and how it speaks to wider issues of the women’s movement. In 1979, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art premiered The Dinner Party, which evoked passionate responses, both positive and negative. In the three decades since The Dinner Party was opened to the public, it has played a central and controversial role in debates surrounding art and feminism. Conservative art critics and politicians have called it pornographic, kitsch, and weird sexual art. Conversely, women visitors to the exhibition, writers, and feminists have heralded the piece inspiring, life changing, and exemplifying the female experience.
So what is it about The Dinner Party that makes it capable of garnering such visceral and diverse reactions? It is a visually and physically grand installation, featuring three forty-eight foot tables arranged in an equilateral triangle. Each table has 13 place settings, representing 39 women of historical significance. The women featured comprise mythical, Biblical, and contemporary mid-twentieth century figures and are organized in chronological order. Starting with Primordial Goddess and ending with Georgia O’Keefe, each setting has 30-inch-wide and 51-inch-long runner embroidered with the guest’s name and embellished in a fashion that represents the period in which they lived.
On each individual runner sits a large china plate that has been sculpted and hand painted to represent vulval/butterfly forms. The plates and runners differ in their intricacy and style, but they establish a cohesive story as one walks around the table in chronological order. Chicago intended for the colorful and three-dimensional ceramic plates to, “physically rise up as a symbol of women’s struggle for freedom from such containment.” The plates along each table become increasingly elaborate as they progress through the timeline. This piece was intended to be the ultimate form of consciousness-raising, as a visual representation of women’s lost history.
The fact that The Dinner Party was created through the use of crafts became one of the primary negative critiques of the art piece. Techniques used, such as china painting, ceramics, needlework, and embroidery are not only considered to be low-art, but they are also traditionally viewed as women’s work or hobbies. For Chicago, the use of the decorative arts was very intentional because she saw the craft of china painting as a, “perfect metaphor for women’s domesticated and trivialized circumstances.” By utilizing craftwork that has been traditionally limited to the domestic sphere, Chicago and her team of collaborators validated women’s artistry and contributions to history. The Dinner Party provides a, “visual narrative of Western civilization as seen through women’s accomplishments.” History has been told from the perspective of men, their conquests, and achievements. Chicago aimed to tell a different story, one that may not have been previously acknowledged or represented.
Three weeks and twenty pages later I had a completed paper and was ready for a break from Judy Chicago and her vulvar dinner plates. Days after submitting my paper, my mom, a Sarah Lawrence College alumna, forwarded me an e-mail invitation for a Sarah Lawrence alumnae/i event at the Brooklyn Museum. The event was a brunch and discussion with Sarah Lawrence alumnae Susan Meiselas ’70 and Cate Muther ’69, about a special exhibition on a collaborative art installation that was inspired by Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party. The special exhibit entitled Shared Dining is a creative work by a group of incarcerated women at York Correctional Institution in Connecticut.
Referring to themselves as “The Women of York,” the group of ten women created their own table with place settings dedicated to a woman of personal significance to each artist. The ten guests included historic and cultural leaders like Eve, the Virgin Mary, Princess Diana, Danica Patrick, and Malala Yousafzai, as well as personal mentors and family members. The artists, a moniker that the women did not initially identify with, created their place settings using the limited materials available to them in their everyday lives within the prison. This included plastic plates and forks, Styrofoam cups, newspapers, yarn, and origami paper.
The Shared Dining installation was created as a part of a workshop that was made possible by Elizabeth A. Sackler, who is the founder and namesake of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art where The Dinner Party is permanently housed. The Sarah Lawrence small world connection is found in the involvement of the event hosts, Susan Meiselas ’70 and Cate Muther ’69. Cate, a former guest faculty member at SLC, is also the founder of The Guineas Fund, which helped to sponsor this workshop. Susan and Cate also worked together to produce audio recordings of the women’s stories and the meaning behind their art. The audio recordings accompany the installation and provide further insight into the artists’ inspiration. These individual stories highlight issues about the relationships between art, gender, and subjugated voices. Shared Dining reflects the iconic work of Judy Chicago in that they both address the subject of women’s stories missing form historic narrative by celebrating women’s achievements. This piece exemplifies the continuing impact of feminism and art.
In a written statement, the artists explain: “We were moved to honor the women who have touched our lives. Our plates represent their strength, struggles, courage and achievements. These women are models of who we aspire to be. We have not been limited by the lack of resources; our imagination and creativity allowed us to turn commonplace objects into art.”
***To read Rachel’s paper in its entirety, you can find it here on the page dedicated to the work of students in the accelerated program.
 Judy Chicago, Beyond the Flower (New York: Penguin Books, 1996), 47.
 Judith E. Stein, “Collaboration,” in The Power of Feminist Art: The American Movement of the 1970s, and History and Impact, ed. Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard; contributors, Judith K. Brodsky…et al (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publishers, 1994), 228.
 Judy Chicago, Beyond the Flower (New York: Penguin Books, 1996), 46.