The Dinner Party: Viewing Feminist Art With My Mother

Although I relate strongly to feminism, I never had to experience its intense necessity firsthand. My mother and her peers created this world for me.
Publish date:
May 10, 2014
feminism, art, museums

My mother came to town last weekend. I planned that we would spend the weekend in restaurants and bookstores, but she had another idea -– she wanted to visit the Brooklyn Museum to see the feminist exhibit “The Dinner Party” by Judy Chicago.

(Side note: The Brooklyn Museum is a 10-minute walk from my apartment, and I had never gone. Sometimes it just takes a mom to get you to nearby culturally relevant institutions!)

On Saturday, we made the quick walk and soon found ourselves in front of a beautiful building. After admiring the fountain for a while, we headed inside and up to the exhibit on the second floor.

“The Dinner Party,” my mom explained, is an important piece of feminist art from the 1970s. Here is what it looks like:

That is, it's a giant, triangular table, with a total of 39 thirty-nine place settings. Each setting is for an important woman from history, and her spot is elaborately decorated just for her -– each placemat and plate is designed with the specific user in mind. As you walk around the table, if you look carefully you will see that in addition to the women with assigned seats, the names of 999 other important women are inscribed in gold on the white tile floor beneath the table.

My mom and I walked around it slowly, taking in the names –- Hatshepsut, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Susan B. Anthony, Emily Dickinson. We laughed at some of the plates, which get more and more vaginal (labial?) as the table moves through history; Georgia O'Keefe (who has her own seat at the table) would have been proud. As we walked slowly around the enormous table, I felt almost in a trance; the room is sparsely lit, and the table seems to glow with generations of strength and power.

When we were finished, we blinked as we entered the well-lit gallery next door, the light shocking us a little. On our walk back to the apartment, I asked my mom what this exhibit meant to her.

My mother is 69 years old (born early in 1945, when WWII was STILL GOING ON, which is insane). When she was growing up, “feminism” wasn't even a word. She told me:

“As you know, my growing up years were suffused with the understanding that women were subservient beings whose role was to be in the home and bring up children, and if you couldn't obtain that you were a total loser and destined to a life of third class status in the world - like my poor Aunt May, whose best option was to live with her sister and brother-in-law. I was quite sure that the main thing I had to do was just find a husband, that was my major goal in life.”

I, on the other hand, grew up with a clear sense of my rights. My mother kept feminist magazines all over the house, and I read them over and over –- so much that she eventually got me a subscription to “New Moon,” which was (and still is, actually) a feminist magazine for girls. In my journals, I wrote extensively about how important it was that women be treated equally. Also, I had a stuffed pig whose gender I loudly proclaimed female and whose rights I upheld rigorously. I had taken on my mother's cause.

But during our conversation on that walk back from the museum, I thought a lot about how, while the exhibit was beautiful and inspiring, it couldn't possibly mean the same thing to me as it does to my mother. Because she was on the GROUND; she was in the trenches. When I asked her later about her first experience with the feminist movement, she told me:

“The very first thing I remember hearing about this new feminist movement was when I was in New Orleans, it was 1969 or 1970. I somehow heard somewhere that some women weren't wearing bras -- this was the first thing I heard about feminism. And I was like, wow! That was the first realization I had that I hated the damn things. I was wearing these underwires, basically because it felt important to me to make myself uncomfortable so that I would be more attractive and achieve my goal of finding a husband. But somehow I heard that and it was the first lightbulb –- that's embarrassing to confess -– but I did stop wearing bras. It actually strikes me as pretty bizarre in retrospect that it was the first thing I heard and acted on. But, I was done with bras then, for a long long time!”

She told me about consciousness-raising groups she was a part of in Boston in the 1970s, and how her involvement in the feminist movement created an entirely new roadmap for her life. What she had imagined for herself as a kid became so much bigger and wider. When my mom was a student at Boston College, she had to fight her way in to an English class that previously had only admitted men –- as if only men could appreciate John Donne. In the span of her adulthood, we've gone from that reality to the one we all live in now.

Although I relate strongly to feminism, I never had to experience its intense necessity firsthand. My mother and her peers -– and women like Judy Chicago -– created this world for us, the women of today. Because of the awakening they orchestrated and experienced, we got to play soccer in school, and take any class we wanted, and dream of any profession. Obviously, there's still a long way to go -– I'm not by any means saying the work is done -- but that first chunk was so powerful, and it deserves recognition and celebration.

The Dinner Party is an important piece of artwork because it goes back and honors women who were never honored in their time. By giving them a seat at a beautiful, majestic table, it pulls the power of women gone by into the now. Ladies who read websites like this one should all go see it -– to honor our mothers, and to celebrate how far they've taken us.