Not Our Mascot: Judy Chicago, Pussyhat Project™, and White, Middle-Class Feminism

“We will never achieve any real change unless we attack our female role at its roots.”

        - Silvia Federici, “Wages Against Housework” (1975)

I first saw Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1974–1979), an art installation which has been part of the collection of the Brooklyn Museum since 2007, in late 2016. Despite an undergraduate major in Art History and studying Critical Art Theory in graduate school, I knew little of Chicago’s work. Regardless, I felt compelled to visit the iconic work while briefly living in New York, as not doing so would be an infraction to my identity as a feminist.

The Dinner Party is housed in its own room within the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, accessed via a small hallway that includes historical information about its creation. The work rests in a darkly lit room with lights illuminating the 39 place settings that decorate the triangular table.[1] Upon entering the room, one is struck by the massive size of the work which is 48 feet long on each side. I paced around the table, lingering over the plates and runners, reading the names that had been delicately embroidered into the fabric and taking note of those I knew—Virginia Woolf, Susan B. Anthony, Artemisia Gentileschi—and skimming those I had never heard of. Given the darkness of the room and their cursive script, I could hardly read the 999 other names carved into the tiled "Heritage Floor". I stayed longer than several visitors who only did a turn around the table and walked out, but was outlasted by two middle-aged white women who spent the entirety of the time I had been in the room that housed the work—nothing short of twenty minutes—reading the accompanying booklets that hung in the hallway entrance.

  Fig. I. Judy Chicago,   The Dinner Party, 1974–79 . Ceramic, porcelain, textile, 576 × 576 in. (1463 × 1463 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation, 2002.10. © Judy Chicago. (Photo: Donald Woodman).

Fig. I. Judy Chicago,  The Dinner Party, 1974–79. Ceramic, porcelain, textile, 576 × 576 in. (1463 × 1463 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation, 2002.10. © Judy Chicago. (Photo: Donald Woodman).

For women who came of age in the second-wave feminist movement, women who didn’t stay home to, as Hillary Clinton famously stated, “bake cookies,” and who fought to demystify not only reproductive health, but the vagina itself, Chicago’s work continues to resonate as indicated by a recent resurgence of interest in both The Dinner Party and Chicago’s overall oeuvre. In October 2017, almost a year after my first viewing of the work, the Brooklyn Museum launched a retrospective exhibition titled Roots of “The Dinner Party”: History in the Making, with a companion show at the National Museum of Women in Washington, DC. Around the same time, the Jessica Silverman Gallery in San Francisco, which began representing Chicago in 2016, opened Judy Chicago’s Pussies, an exhibition of the artist’s work that spanned 1968 to 2004. Only months before joining the Jessica Silverman Gallery, Chicago was added to the roster of Salon 94 in New York, which featured her large triptych, Rainbow Man (1984) at Art Basel Miami in the Fall of 2017 and which this January opened Powerplay: A Prediction, a series the artist created between 1982 and 1987. In addition to her gallery and museum shows, Amazon Studios is in the process of developing a series based on Womanhouse, the 1972 art space co-organized by Chicago and Miriam Schapiro. [2]

Chicago gained notoriety as an artist after the completion of The Dinner Party and its zealous use of feminine forms. The soft labial folds and vulvic hollows of the dinner plates drew crowds at the museum entrance when they were first premiered at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1979, while simultaneously embroiling her in the culture wars of the 1980s. [3]Along with its direct reference to female anatomy, traditional crafts associated with female domesticity and the home were used throughout the work in the embroidered runners and the hand-painted china. Indeed, the very setting of a dinner party harkens to the predominant space of white, middle-class female socialization: the home. Chicago would later write in her 1997 memoir Beyond the Flower that through the work she “wanted to express what it was like to be organized around a central core, my vagina, that which made me a woman.” [4] Such a statement was in line with the concerns of second-wave feminism of the 1970s which orbited around abortion rights and gender-based discrimination in the workplace.

Chicago has been widely credited with establishing what has been termed a “feminist art practice,” or art constructed through feminine solidarity—women helping other women.[5] The idea of a feminist sisterhood as the key to revolution is embodied in the work itself—thirty-nine powerful women sitting at the same table—as well as in the actual construction of the work, as Chicago depended on the free labor of over four hundred skilled workers of different genders, though many were female university students.[6] Part of the project of the current Brooklyn exhibition is to recoup the names of the volunteers who contributed their labor to the project—an ironic task for a work of art that sought to literally name women left out of western history.[7]

 Fig. 2. Judy Chicago and Others Working in  The Dinner Party  Needlework Loft, 1978. Courtesy of Through the Flower Archive.

Fig. 2. Judy Chicago and Others Working in The Dinner Party Needlework Loft, 1978. Courtesy of Through the Flower Archive.

Chicago’s dependence on free labor is nothing new as artists continue to depend on the free or very cheap labor of those eager to make careers of their own. Such labor is disproportionately done by those with the financial resources to work without earning a wage, thereby limiting participation to only the most privileged. What sets Chicago apart is how such free labor has become the bedrock of a specifically feminist art practice that orbits around this idea of “art constructed by community,” but which, more often than not, fails to equally credit and compensate everyone involved.[8]

Along with the basic questions of authorship and credit, such a feminist art practice is problematic in that it leverages feminine traits shaped by the very capitalist patriarchy it aims to undermine. In the 1970s, the housewife may have been liberating herself from the home, but she had and has yet to liberate herself from the role of mother who is innately suited for fulfilling the needs of others. In her 1975 essay “Wages for Housework,” Italian philosopher Silvia Federici writes that women had to first shed the “female role that capital has invented for us,” one which manifested as the invisible labor of the housewife.[9] Despite its name, “Wages for Housework” was not simply an economic demand for a wage, but a demand to restructure capital relations and do away with the “insidious character of femininity” that makes capital “out of our cooking, smiling, fucking.”[10] Federici and those alongside her aimed to undermine the expectation that women are a naturally giving sex when their “giving” was really fundamental to the stability of a capitalist society.[11] Such a truth was made abundantly clear when in 1980 ninety percent of the women of Iceland went on strike from not only their waged roles, but their roles as mothers and caretakers in a day that is remembered as Women’s Day Off and which effectively shut down the country's banks, schools, and nurseries.[12]

 fig 3. 25,000 striking women gathered in Reykjavik for Women’s Day Off. Courtesy of Icelandic Women’s History Archives. 

fig 3. 25,000 striking women gathered in Reykjavik for Women’s Day Off. Courtesy of Icelandic Women’s History Archives. 

While in 2018 women are learning that they need not cook, smile, or fuck on command, the #MeToo being the most current iteration, mainstream feminism continues to organize itself on the same foundation that initially brought about women’s cooking, smiling, and fucking—the manipulation of invisible labor into “love” and “generosity.” Political struggles always depend to some extent on participants’ willingness to work for a cause for free, and who is able to do that has long been disproportionately those with the most education and resources.[13]

The contemporary feminist movement continues to struggle with expectations women have of themselves and of one another in regards to how they are able to contribute. The easiest and most common way to be involved is to do so by marching or contributing financially, brandishing a visual display of one’s support on for example, a t-shirt, and support via volunteering one’s time, all of which necessitate a certain amount of financial and thus social privilege to begin with. A truly revolutionary feminist movement would account for the unequal access to involvement in the movement itself—that it is not simply enough to “show up” but to account for who cannot show up and why.

A truly revolutionary feminist movement would account for the unequal access to involvement in the movement itself—that it is not simply enough to “show up” but to account for who cannot show up and why.

Last year this was personified in the Pussyhat Project™, which encouraged women to knit pink hats with cat-like ears to wear to the 2017 Women’s March in order to create “a sea of pink” as a visual message of resistance.[14] At a very basic level, the hat excluded some from participating as one needed to purchase supplies, know how to knit and use valuable “free time” to construct a hat. Additionally, many have noted that the hat failed to translate into communities of women of color or the trans community.[15] As of January 2018 the project’s website proclaims that it aims to be open to everyone, not simply white women, but to argue that knitting a hat isn’t a racially exclusive project is to discount how labor, race, and gender are intertwined and that “free time” isn’t dolled out equally, or free at all. The very act of knitting as a political act is a regression into an older form of feminism that, like The Dinner Party, is rooted in a notion of traditional feminine craft, bound to the caring mother who is willing to give her time to the needs of her family. In the FAQ section of the project site, interested participants are encouraged to visit their local yarn shop and ask them if they know a knitter willing to knit them a hat if they purchase the necessary supplies.[16] The idea of donating one’s labor or finding donated labor, most likely from another woman, reinforces the role of women as natural-born givers and fails to take into account that the production of Pussyhats does not exist in a vacuum outside class, race and economics.

 Fig. 4. Molly Cleator (R) takes part in the Pussyhat social media campaign to provide pink hats for protesters in the women's march in Washington, D.C., the day after the presidential inauguration, in Los Angeles, California, U.S., January 13, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson.

Fig. 4. Molly Cleator (R) takes part in the Pussyhat social media campaign to provide pink hats for protesters in the women's march in Washington, D.C., the day after the presidential inauguration, in Los Angeles, California, U.S., January 13, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson.

Like the contemporary feminist movement, the art world writ large, which intersects and is supported by the art market, wrestles with the paradox of both attempting to stay on the vanguard of social movements, while being formed within capitalist structures. Chicago’s current resurgence may be bolstered by the current social climate, but can ultimately be understood within economic terms. Middle-class, educated whites make up the majority of both museum goers and art collectors, so appealing to their politics and taste makes solid economic sense.[17] Chicago is part of a larger emerging trend within commercial galleries to add older artists to their roster, artist that can tap into the nostalgia for 1960s and 70s’ social movements. Such acts of “rediscovery” turn a time period of radical action into art market fodder at the gallery auction block and the museum entrance.[18] Chicago’s recent resurgence represents a triangulation of social justice at its most superficial and approachable level, the art world’s attempt to answer the calls of its constituents—namely the white, educated and middle-class liberals—for art that reflects their politics, but in a way that no longer ruffles any feathers (it seems unlikely that the SFMOMA would be willing to show a work now that sparked a similar amount of controversy as The Dinner Party did in 1979), and the pressures of the market.

Mainstream culture has embraced feminism in largely capitalist terms; crusaders for a radical revolution that dismantles structures of privilege have been usurped by good consumers who simply want the same access to the economic opportunities afforded to white men. Such a phenomena is nothing new. Even as early as the 1970s, companies like Virginia Slims used feminist slogans and imagery to market their products to women. Today, t-shirts that read “The Future is Female,” borrowing a slogan from a 1975 design that is, ahem, a bit out of touch with contemporary gender politics as it reinforces binary gender identities, has gained wide popularity.

 Fig. 5. Screenshot, Otherwild "the future is female t-shirt," January 22, 2018. Courtesey of the author.  https://otherwild.com/products/the-future-is-female-t-shirt?variant=5122173569

Fig. 5. Screenshot, Otherwild "the future is female t-shirt," January 22, 2018. Courtesey of the author.

https://otherwild.com/products/the-future-is-female-t-shirt?variant=5122173569

The proliferation of feminist swag has spurred companies like Forever 21 to sell knockoffs in an effort to appeal to the desires of, particularly, young white, middle-class women to rebrand themselves as feminists in light of Trump. One can show their solidarity by posting a photo to Instagram wearing the right feminist swag, or by wearing a pink hat to a march. While it’s a positive thing that people embracing the label feminist, time will tell if the perceived groundswell of support is nothing more than a current fashion trend.

 Screenshot "Forever 21 Wild Feminist" courtesy of Refinery 29. Accessed January 22, 2018.  http://www.refinery29.com/2017/08/168773/forever-21-wildfang-copy-wild-feminist-shirt

Screenshot "Forever 21 Wild Feminist" courtesy of Refinery 29. Accessed January 22, 2018.

http://www.refinery29.com/2017/08/168773/forever-21-wildfang-copy-wild-feminist-shirt

Similarly, feminist mascots like The Dinner Party and Pussyhat Project™ are sold as opportunities to exercise a feminist position, but more often than not, are nothing more than a form of cathartic capitalism—as long as you wear this or attend this opening, you can be a revolutionary, too! In a similar vein, museum exhibitions that turn a work of art that even NY Magazine state “defines women in very limited terms” fulfills a hollow political quota without actually upping the ante and what was enough in 1979, or even 1995, is not enough in 2018. [20]


  1. Since my viewing the work in 2016, the piece has been re-lit to be more visible.  ↩

  2. Eckardt, Stephanie. “Why Judy Chicago, 78-Year-Old Feminist Godmother of Vagina Art, is Having a Revival.” W Magazine. October 23, 2017. Accessed January 22, 2018.  ↩

  3. Gerhard, Jane F. Dinner Party: Judy Chicago and the Power of Popular Feminism, 1970-2007. University of Georgia Press, 2013.5  ↩

  4. Ibid  ↩

  5. Steinem, Gloria. “Feminist Art Icon Judy Chicago Isn’t Done Fighting.” Interview Magazine.December 11, 2017. Accessed January 22, 2018.  ↩

  6. Four hundred women and men freely gave their time over a five year period, although it was around 150 who were dedicated to the project long-term.  ↩

  7. Deskins, Sally. “Ways of Seeing Judy Chicago’s ‘The Dinner Party.’" Art Slant, October 19 2017. Accessed January 22, 2018.  ↩

  8. Steinem, Interview  ↩

  9. Federici, Silvia. Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle. Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2012. 57  ↩

  10. Ibid  ↩

  11. While Federici failed to incorporate race into her essay, the notion that capitalism is supported by unwaged, invisible labor would become integral to larger projects which would unfold over the next few decades with the rise of gender studies and identity politics.  ↩

  12. Bewer, Kirstie. “The Day Iceland’s Women Went on Strike.” BBC News, October 23, 2015. Accessed January 22, 2018.  ↩

  13. The Black Panthers are a great exception to this in that they organized around an understanding that in order to have any sort of revolution, they had to meet the basic needs of their community.  ↩

  14. Pussyhat Project™ website  ↩

  15. In the process of writing this essay, the Pussyhat Project™ website included a caveat to the criticism against the project on its homepage stating, “Some feel that the pink color of the hat excludes people of color from the project. Some feel that the hat is a literal symbol of female anatomy, promoting Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism (TERF). Thank you for speaking up with your criticisms. We hear you.”Pussyhat Project™ website  ↩

  16. Ibid  ↩

  17. Maccambridge, Ruth. “Museums So White: Survey Reveals Deep Lack of Diversity.” Nonprofit Quarterly, March 2017. Accessed January 22, 2018.  ↩

  18. Maccambridge, Ruth.Furman, Anna. “Museums So White: Survey Reveals Deep Lack of Diversity.” September 22, 2017. Accessed January 22, 2018.  ↩

Harper Brokaw-Falbo is a writer and cultural producer working at the intersection of Art History and Urban Theory, and a co-founder of Dissolve. She recently completed the Whitney Independent Study Program in New York as a Helena Rubinstein Fellow in Critical Studies. She holds a BA in Art History from the University of Oregon, and an MA in the History and Theory of Contemporary Art from the San Francisco Art Institute.