Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party:
The Runners

" When we began to understand the rich tradition of embroidery and perceive its enormous visual potential, we became determined to include as many different techniques and styles as possible as another way of calling attention to women's unrecognized heritage. Moreover, I decided that — in addition to using embroidery to identify the women on the table and extend the imagery of the plates — I would express something about each woman's experience, environment, or context through a combination of symbolic and literal images which create a narrative on the backs of the runners. This led to an expansion of the iconography of the runners generally.

After the first group of runners had been completed, I began to alter the format of the design. Instead of the imagery being restricted to the periphery of the runner, it gradually moved closer to the plate, steadily encroaching on its space. I intended this as a metaphor for the increasing restrictions on women's power that occurred in the development of Western civilization. The relationship between the plates and their runners reflects the varying positions of women in different periods of history. In some cases, the plates dominate the runners; in others, the imagery of the runners engulfs or threatens the plate; sometimes, there is the same congruence between the plate and the runner that the woman experienced between her own aspirations and the prevailing attitudes toward female achievement; and occasionally, there is enormous visual tension between the plate and its runner as a symbol of that woman's rebellion against the constraints of female role.

On the last wing of the table, I made a strong visual change. I wanted to imply an alteration in the historical circumstances of the women represented — particularly after the beginning of the women's revolution, which is marked by the place setting for Mary Wollstonecraft. At this point I began to break the rigid rectilinear form of the runners in the same way that the edges of the plates had been modified to reflect women's growing struggle toward freedom. Additionally, the butterfly images, a consistent motif in the plates, appears for the first time in the needlework of the third wing. A symbol of liberation, the butterfly gradually becomes more prominent in the last place settings, which chronicle women's efforts to gain equal rights and to regain their creative powers."

Judy Chicago, Embroidering Our Heritage: The Dinner Party Needlework (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1980), p.15.

"Although each plate and runner is distinct — to reflect the many differences among the women represented — all of the place settings are exactly the same. Each includes lustred ceramic flatware, a similarly lustered ceramic goblet or chalice with a gold interior, and a napkin whose stitched gold edge repeats the embroidery on the names and the borders of the tablecloths. These table settings are intended as a dual metaphor, both domestic and religious, expressing the 'containment' imposed by female role expectations while also calling attention to the indispensable although unacknowledged value of 'women's work'. Thus the place settings vigorously protests women's oppression, while at the same time honoring their many achievements.

The runners which are executed in a variety of needle and textile techniques incorporate decorative styles and motifs typical of the period with which each woman or goddess was associated while acting as a visual context for the plate. In addition to expressing aspects of each woman's life, they also symbolize something of the historical circumstances she faced. In some cases the imagery on the plates overwhelms the runner design, implying that particular woman's courageous transcendence of oppressive conditions; in others, the runner design encroaches on the plate, suggesting a historical atmosphere inhospitable to her aspirations. Sometimes there is a near-total congruence between the imagery of the plate and runner to suggest a similar consonance between the woman's ambition and prevailing social attitudes toward women. Then again, occasionally there is an intense visual tension between the plate and the runner, a symbol of that woman's rebellion against the constraints of her particular circumstances."

Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party
(New York: Penguin Books, 1996), pp. 9-10.

Wing One: Prehistory to Classical Rome

Primordial Goddess runner Fertile Goddess runner Ishtar runner

Kali runner Snake Goddess runner Sophia runner

Amazon runner Hatshepsut runner Judith runner

Sappho runner Aspasia runner Boadaceia runner

Hypatia runner

Wing Two: Christianity to the Reformation

Marcella runner Saint Bridget runner Theodora runner

Hrosvitha runner Trotula runner Eleanor of Aquitaine runner

Hildegard of Bingen runner Petronilla de Meath runner Christine de Pisan runner

Isabella d'Este runner Elizabeth R. runner Artemisia Gentileschi runner

Anna van Schurman runner

Wing Three: American Revolution to the Women's Revolution

Anne Hutchinson runner Sacajawea runner Caroline Herschel runner

Mary Wollstonecraft runner Sojourner Truth runner Susan B. Anthony runner

Elizabeth Blackwell runner Emily Dickinson runner Ethel Smyth runner

Margaret Sanger runner Natalie Barney runner Virginia Woolf runner

Georgia O'Keeffe runner

Judy Chicago, Embroidering Our Heritage: The Dinner Party Needlework (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1980), unnumbered illustration pages. [Warning: Because of the width of the runner images, printing this Web document is best done via print preview with a 60% size for portrait layout.]

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Last modified on May 7, 2007 by Kay Keys (kay@kaykeys.net)