Pull up a Chair at Judy’s Table

April 24th, 2013


When it comes to feminism, all of us have our own idea of how it may be defined. Some say that anyone supportive of equality is a feminist. Some adhere to a strictly canonical history when it comes to the timeline of feminist “waves.” Others may have a more loose notion of the general profile of what a feminist might look like, act like, and how that person has been educated or even how relevant their core values are today. When it comes to this issue of “relevance,” it may be worth a refresher course – one informed by a primary source rather than a subjective feeling.

Seven years ago, I moved to New York. Around that time I got wind that the Brooklyn Museum of Art was working on the permanent installation of Judy Chicago’s seminal work, “The Dinner Party”. Consisting of handmade place settings for influential women throughout history, and many more names inscribed on floor tiles. You might say that Judy was the first woman to publicly display that women belonged “at the table,” (as Sheryl Sandberg asserted in her Ted Talk, and subsequent book, “Lean In”.)

“The Dinner Table” is now on permanent view in Brooklyn, and serves as a primary source object that can teach an audience about feminist thinking. The museum provided an audio guide with a few words from the artist, herself, while the physical artwork is intended to, “teach women’s history through art.” Originally crafted in the 1970s, and now permanently housed in the Elizabeth A Sackler Center for Feminist Art, (a wing of the museum dedicated to such works,) the artwork is protected, intentionally/ostensibly,  from erasure. 

However, if an individual is not prone to research feminist theory, or women’s history… have we ghettoized our own story by enshrining the work in it’s own special gallery? I’d also question if card-carrying feminists value this work enough to promote it to others and study it, themselves. Moreover, do we promote the work of contemporary young female artists and writers?

I am asking these questions to myself, and I am headed out to the museum for an over due visit, in order to probe my own thinking. I’d like to refresh my understanding and empathy by viewing and hearing the stories of women that came before me. Though I have seen the work before – as humans, we easily forget.

If you have not seen this work in person, please visit if you can. If it is unreasonable for you to travel to the gallery, I urge you to take note of women’s stories in your life – the ones who raised you, whose literature you read, whose performances inspired you, and probe your own memory for those you may have forgotten. That is the real accomplishment of Judy’s work. It is to make sure these women are acknowledged and remembered. That is what feminism is about. Not being passed over, but being a part of the story, equal, included, and having something to bring to the table, not to just sit there.

Detail of the Dinner Table, Emily Dickenson.

Detail of Judy’s Dinner Table, Emily Dickenson.

The 39 women with places at the table are:

(with 999 more women included in the “heritage floor”)

Wing I: From Prehistory to the Roman Empire
1. Primordial Goddess
2. Fertile Goddess
3. Ishtar
4. Kali
5. Snake Goddess
6. Sophia
7. Amazon
8. Hatshepsut
9. Judith
10. Sappho
11. Aspasia
12. Boadaceia
13. Hypatia

Wing II: From the Beginnings of Christianity to the Reformation
14. Marcella
15. Saint Bridget
16. Theodora
17. Hrosvitha
18. Trotula
19. Eleanor of Aquitaine
20. Hildegarde of Bingen
21. Petronilla de Meath
22. Christine de Pisan
23. Isabella d’Este
24. Elizabeth R.
25. Artemisia Gentileschi
26. Anna van Schurman

Wing III: From the American to the Women’s Revolution
27. Anne Hutchinson
28. Sacajawea
29. Caroline Herschel
30. Mary Wollstonecraft
31. Sojourner Truth
32. Susan B. Anthony
33. Elizabeth Blackwell
34. Emily Dickinson
35. Ethel Smyth
36. Margaret Sanger
37. Natalie Barney
38. Virginia Woolf
39. Georgia O’Keeffe

  • http://twitter.com/sftpwr SftPwr

    While I was at the museum, (with other graduate students,) I observed some elementary-level students learning about the women identified in Judy’s table installation. At least for this small group – her intent for it to be used as a teaching device was satisfied.

    Is it a complete or flawless history? No. But it is a starting point. It is an artifact of the second-wave feminist movement with a concrete location in the Brooklyn Museum of Art and therefore within cultural dialogue about women in the arts.