The Dinner Party sought to write forgotten women back into history. Its principle aim was to reclaim women from history—or his-story, as it was often referred to in the 1970s—a narrative that for millennia had excluded and even at times removed women as historical subjects.
Judy Chicago (American, b. 1939). The Dinner Party (Primordial Goddess place setting), 1974–79. Mixed media: ceramic, porcelain, textile. Brooklyn Museum, Gift of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation, 2002.10. © Judy Chicago. Photograph by Jook Leung Photography
Judy Chicago (American, b. 1939). The Dinner Party (Hatshepsut place setting), 1974–79. Mixed media: ceramic, porcelain, textile. Brooklyn Museum, Gift of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation, 2002.10. © Judy Chicago. Photograph by Jook Leung Photography
Judy Chicago (American, b. 1939). The Dinner Party (Artemisia Gentileschi place setting), 1974–79. Mixed media: ceramic, porcelain, textile. Brooklyn Museum, Gift of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation, 2002.10. © Judy Chicago. Photograph by Jook Leung Photography
When Chicago began researching and compiling women’s names for inclusion in The Dinner Party, she was, in many instances, starting from scratch. There were no archeologists working seriously on the history of goddess civilizations and imagery, or the all-female Amazonian societies that dated back to the 3rd and 2nd-millenia B.C.E.; there were no Egyptologists yet interested in the power of the female pharaoh Hatshepsut; there was certainly no real scholarly interest yet in the Baroque painter, Artemisia Gentileschi. Indeed, monographs on women artists were scant and works by women were very rarely on view in museums (if they owned works at all). Within this context, the archival research that went into unearthing these historical figures must be understood as groundbreaking.
Statuette of a Snake Goddess (front view), Early Aegean, Minoan–Bronze Age, Late Minoan I Period, about 1600–1500 b.c. or early 20th century. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Mrs. W. Scott Fitz, 14.863. (Image: © 2007 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
The Dinner Party is, therefore, representative of a specific moment in American history when the longstanding lack of scholarship about women was finally being addressed by an early generation of feminist scholars intent on excavating women from the archives, and criticizing his-story for its masculinist biases. This “reclamation” of women’s lost history became one of the most important feminist strategies of the 1970s, and one that resulted in new scholarship on mythological and historical female figures and societies whose names we might not otherwise know of today. For instance, in 1974 and 1975, respectively, the archeologists Marija Gimbutas and Merlin Stone presented comprehensive surveys of goddess-worshipping and matriarchal civilizations dating back to the Neolithic period (6500–3500 B.C.E.). In 1976, the art historians Ann Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin organized the landmark exhibition Women Artists: 1550–1950, the very first museum exhibition in this country dedicated exclusively to women artists. It was also in the 1970s that general women’s art survey books were written for the first time: Eleanor Tufts’s Our Hidden Heritage: Five Centuries of Women Artists, 1974; Elsa Honig Fine’s Women and Art: A History of Women Painters and Sculptors from the Renaissance to the 20th Century, 1978; Germaine Greer’s The Obstacle Race: The Fortunes of Women Painters and Their Work, 1979; among others.
Cover of the Exhibition Catalogue Women Artists, 1550–1950, by Ann Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin. Design by Rosalie Carlson. (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1976; New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976)
For the first time in U.S. history, scholarly attention was being sufficiently paid to the cultural contributions of women historically, and The Dinner Party was a monumental example of its manifestation in visual form. However, the reclamation of a lost history was not the only feminist art strategy employed in The Dinner Party. There were others that, in sum, account for its power and longevity as a feminist icon, including the monumental scale of the piece; the use of “women’s work” or “craft”; and, lastly, the celebration of vaginal or “central core” imagery.