Arts Politics: Women in Art – Judy Chicago and the Dinner Party

In 1979 the painter Judy Chicago, a major contributor to the feminist art movement, created one of the most elaborately emblematic feminist works of art ever made: The Dinner Party.

Chicago’s conception began five years prior to the exhibition, and started with the idea of a dinner table set for 13, with painted plates and placemats embroidered by more than 100 women under Chicago’s direction.

In the space of four years the number tripled and three tables were made, forming a triangle; the traditional feminine symbol dating back to pre-history, but which also served as the symbol of the equalized world, which feminists had sought for and demanded.

Each plate and place mat encapsulated a woman who had distinguished herself in the history of Western civilization. Each side of the table illustrates women within specific chronological periods, from pre-history to the 20th century.

The table is set for 39 guests, of which include the Egyptian queen Hatshepsut, American painter Georgia O’Keefe, and British novelist Virginia Woolf, among other artists and writers.

The female celebration is continued in how the floor of the installation is decorated in triangular, porcelain tiles naming a further 999 distinguished women, suggesting that those at the table “had risen from a foundation provided by other women’s accomplishments”.

This exhibition was a landmark in the progressive feminist movement that began emerging in the late 20th century. Despite the dramatic story that comes with this work (concerning its response and the turbulent fight to keep it exhibited), in retrospect it is easy to ask what was unusual about it.

Throughout most of the 20th century the art system was predominantly masculine, and though today the feminist voice has become inherent in all manners of “arts”, The Dinner Party was then innovative in how it was a female centered project.

The importance of this work is fathomed by Chicago’s remark that the women in The Dinner Party tried to make themselves heard, fought to retain their influence, attempted to do what they wanted. They wanted to exercise their rights to which they were entitled by virtue of their birth, their talent, their genius, and their desire. But they were prohibited from doing so – were ridiculed, ignored, and maligned by historians for attempting to do so – because they were women.


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Laura Thompson

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August 2022
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