Her Table Is Ready

By Rachel Beckman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 22, 2007

You'd think the shock would have worn off by now. Judy Chicago's iconic feminist art installation "The Dinner Party" made a lot of people squirm back in 1979, with its vulva-motif plates. Surely a progressive young feminist like myself would be able to handle it with some modicum of maturity.

Apparently not.

I first saw "The Dinner Party" last fall in an old art book. It pictured the Susan B. Anthony place setting, which looks like a flower with four pink petals circling a crimson abyss. The plate is perched atop a fringed triangle.

The vaginal imagery was blatant, like a Georgia O'Keeffe flower that stopped pretending to be a flower. I blushed. I giggled. I slammed the book shut and called over an authority -- my Aunt Ellen, who chuckled at the picture in a those-were-the-days sort of way.

Fast-forward four months to a worst-case scenario of sorts: I was assigned to spend an hour alone with Judy Chicago and "The Dinner Party" at its new, permanent home, the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum.

The installation is an enormous triangular table, 48 feet on each side, set for 39 important women, from goddesses to historical figures. Chicago calls them her "girls." Each place setting includes a ceramic plate and a table runner that symbolize the woman's achievements. The table sits on a porcelain "Heritage Floor," which features the names of 999 other important women in gold paint.

It is considered one of the world's most important works of feminist art. Hundreds of women contributed their skills to complete the piece.

"So, what do you think?" she asked, smiling. The 67-year-old artist had bright red curls and was wearing violet-tinted glasses and a matching sequined shirt.

I came clean and told her about my reaction . . . mostly. I told her that the obvious vaginal imagery made me squirm. But I chickened out and didn't tell her that "The Dinner Party" looked like a relic of stereotypical, bras-a-blazin' feminism. It looked so '70s, like a burnt-orange carpet that someone had been too lazy to replace. It didn't seem relevant to the feminist topics I care about, like balancing work and family, and young women thinking it's okay to starve like their favorite celebrities.

"I think we're all educated to be frightened of female power," she said. "So am I surprised you reacted that way? No. I'm not surprised. And I don't think you should be upset with yourself about it. I think you should be upset about the culture that made it that way."

My family's culture couldn't have helped. I remember asking my dad what a feminist was when I was 8.

"A man-hater," he joked.

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