Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party and The Fight for Feminine Representation and Reclamation

Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1974—1979) is often referred to as one of the most significant icons of the American feminist movement of the 1970s.  Now a part of the Brooklyn Museum’s permanent collection in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, this installation serves to empower women through the glorification of the female form.  The Dinner Party’s physical construction and structure reflect the reclamation of history and femininity during the second-wave feminist movement.Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 10.09.10 PM

The installation is set up so that viewers walk down a hallway lined with hand-embroidered banners into a dimly lit triangular room.  Visitors are to walk counter-clockwise around an equilateral triangular table set with individualized placemats, each setting representing a historical female figure from ancient times to the modern day.  As one walks around the table, the plates become more complex and dimensional in detail. The table is mounted on a platform tiled with hundreds of women’s names written in gold script.

The Dinner Party serves as a reflection of the growing social acknowledgement and recognition of women in American society.  Much of the movement was spurred by the sexual liberation of women from the patriarchal constraints of history.  A major part of the feminist movement in the 1970s was a glorification and emphasis on the female body.  By exposing viewers to feminine symbols and iconography in The Dinner Party, Chicago aims to compensate for the major overlooking and erasure of the contributions of women throughout a male-centric history.Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 10.09.00 PM

Each element of The Dinner Party reminds us of the power of women.  Most obviously, Chicago’s ornate dinner plates emulate floral, vaginal shapes.  But the female body is also reflected in many more aspects of the installation as well.  For instance, each table setting is equipped with a chalice, reminiscent of the shape of a uterus.  This is also echoed in the triangular motif of the whole piece, from the overall shape of the table, to the triangular tiles on the floor, to the hand embroidered runners at each corner of the table.

Furthermore, Chicago reclaims stereotypes of femininity by emphasizing domesticity through the form of the installation.  The installation itself, a dinner table, reflects the expected domestic responsibilities of women to cook meals and prepare the dinner table.  Chicago ties in more motifs of female gender roles through the focus on craftsmanship: all the table clothes and ceramics are made by hand.    Chicago uses these crafts to emphasize, affirm and reclaim the feminine identity.

Today, The Dinner Party brings different relevance to modern feminism. Chicago chose to represent primarily white, middle-class women in her installation.  While some women of color such as Hatshepsut and Sacajawea are represented, only 6 out of 39 of the women embodied in the exhibit are not white, Sojourner Truth being the single black woman represented.  In fact, in her 1984 critique, “Interstices: A Small Drama of Words” Hortense J. Spillers claimed that by the inclusion of majorly only white women, Chicago’s piece served to exclude and ignore Black feminism.  Furthermore, many found the plates to be derivative simplifications of the complex identities of these women.  However this was a part of Chicago’s commentary: throughout history women have been reduced to their stereotypes.  It is important to keep in mind that representation is an issue that feminists still fight for today.

The Dinner Party functions as a snapshot of second-wave feminism in the 1970s.  It explicitly reminds viewers of a pattern of historical rewriting and points to the importance of feminine representation in society without denying their core identities as women.

References

“Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art: The Dinner Party.” Brooklyn Museum:. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Apr. 2014.

“Interstices: A Small Drama of Words.” Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2003. 152-75. Online E-Book.

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