Students Save a Seat for Women in History

Lilley Library art exhibit invites remarkable women to the table

By Heather Cass
Publications Manager, Office of Strategic Communications,  Penn State Behrend

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“For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.”

This quote by author Virginia Woolf sums up the invisibility of women in the collective history of the world. Overshadowed by the accomplishments of men, few females have made it into the history books. And, yet, women have made their presence known in every aspect of human existence from art to banking to the military to the board room and beyond.

In 1979, feminist artist Judy Chicago gave thirty-nine women a seat at the table in her masterwork “The Dinner Party,” a giant sculpture that imagines famous women from myth and history engaged in conversation.

The installation art, which took more than five years to produce, is composed of thirty-nine ornate place settings on a triangular table with thirteen plates on each side. An additional 999 women’s names are written in gold on the floor. The piece toured the world, gaining an audience of millions; it is now on permanent display at the Brooklyn Museum.

Closer to home, you’ll find another dinner party happening in the John M. Lilley Library.

Students in last spring’s WMNST 106 Representations of Women in Literature, Art, and Culture taught by Dr. Sarah Whitney, assistant teaching professor of English and women’s studies, painted plates to honor a women from a wide variety of backgrounds. The students’ work is on display in the gallery space near the entrance to the library.

“For this project, students researched a woman of their choice who made significant contributions,” Whitney said. “They designed and painted on china as Judy Chicago did, using color and shape creatively to demonstrate the chosen figure’s importance. Students also wrote a reflection paper exploring their figure’s historical, and personal, impact on the artist.”

Some of the plates honor women you might expect, such as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, author Maya Angelou, and women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony.

Others are more surprising.

Molly Boniger, a junior English major, chose to honor Soviet sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko.

“The purpose of ‘The Dinner Party’ was to recognize women who history had forgotten and I wanted someone who was unconventional, even by today’s standards,” Boniger said. “Pavlichenko has an incredible story. She is a young woman from a Ukrainian village who became the Soviet Union’s greatest sniper during World War II. She showed that woman can be hard and strong, and they don’t have to be the delicate, soft things that society would prefer we be.”

Boniger is an aspiring screenwriter who took WMNST 106 to learn what she suspected she was missing.

“The class was amazing,” Boniger said. “I could not believe the amount of exposure I received and just how much women’s contributions to art and culture have been excluded from the narrative we’ve all been taught.”

Whitney was pleased with the range of women and topics that students picked.

“The plates reflect a diversity of choices, which is wonderful,” Whitney said. “I especially enjoyed learning about new women from our international students whose choices spanned the globe. Furthermore, some students chose mythical or fictional figures, such as Shakti, which were also quite enlightening.”

Among the women represented are: Coco Chanel, Cleopatra, Julie Andrews, Lynsey Addario, Ellen DeGeneres, Chihiro Ogino, Miley Cyrus, Emma Watson, Pasang Lhamu, Athena, Amy Winehouse, Billie Jean King, Marilyn Monroe, Amelia Earhart, Helen Keller, and Janis Joplin.

Not all of the plates honor people.

Junior biology major Caitlin Kent, chose to celebrate the essence of womanhood and give a nod to her future career as an obstetrician/gynecologist.

“I painted a uterus as the center of the universe to represent a feminine divine force or a female creator,” Kent said. “All life stems from women. On my plate, one ovary is painted as the sun and one as the Earth to center the uterus as the birthplace of the universe.”

The plates are simple porcelain and students used a china paint, just like Judy Chicago, to adorn them.

“Using hands-on materials to make historical events come alive is a key part of my teaching practice in general,” Whitney said. “I think using manipulatives is particularly important in studying ‘Dinner Party’ both because it is a visceral, intense piece, and because Chicago was intentional about using traditional women’s art practices, like china painting and embroidery, to honor forgotten female artists. By doing it, you sort of experience Chicago’s process.”

Kent and Boniger gave the project, and the entire course, high marks.

“I think WMNST 106 is a class that all people can benefit from,” Boniger said. “These women’s histories are all of our histories. The class covers such a range of subjects, I can guarantee that any student taking it will learn something new, and enjoy doing so. It’s about time we start bringing women into the conversation and including them in the history they have helped create.”

“My Dinner Party” will be on exhibit in the Lilley Library until October 26. Whitney would like to acknowledge the help of the Lilley librarians, and Scott Rispin, assistant teaching professor of art, who helped to assemble the display.

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