The first wing of the table begins with prehistory, which is presented in the first seven place settings. The eighth plate, which depicts Hatshepsut, one of the four female pharaohs of Egypt, is intended to straddle the mythological and real worlds, as pharaohs were thought to incarnate the power of the deities. Her plate is the first to include a slightly reliefed surface, a visual metaphor for the struggle for liberation that is developed in the later plate images.
The initial place settings present a series of Goddess figures. These are intended to represent prepatriarchal society, which was typified by the widespread worship of the Goddess. The early runners incorporate simple textile techniques and various motifs that emphasize the importance of the Goddess in the development of needlework, attested to by a variety of ancient myths and legends. The invention of weaving and spinning was often attributed to a number of female deities, who are described as having both taught these kills to women and sanctified their work.
The next sequence of place settings chronicle the development of Judaism, early Greek societies, and then the emergence of Rome as the center of the so-called civilized world. The decline of the Roman empire, while marking the end of the classical world, also brought significant alterations in women's circumstances. The earlier periods that featured some measure of social and political power gave way to increasing disenfranchisement, legal restrictions, and in some cultures, the sequestering of women. These changes are reflected in the runner designs on the first wing of the table and epitomized by the last image, that of Hypatia. Her place setting, and particularly the runner back, symbolize the terrible punishment inflicted upon some of those women who attempted to maintain the ancient tradition of reverence for both women and the Goddess.
The second wing of the table chronicles the fluctuations in women's position from the early days of Christianity — when, in many religious communities, women enjoyed a considerable amount of freedom — to the Reformation, which brought about the dissolution of the convents and the end of the education and independence that they had provided. As feudal society gave way to the Renaissance and the rise of the modern state, all classes of women were affected, often in negative ways. The Reformation eventually ushered in a new, though limited, form of secular female education, which was to contribute to the beginning of a dramatic change, as women gradually developed the intellectual tools to articulate arguments for equal rights.
These historical developments are reflected in the iconography of the second wing of the table, particularly in the runners, where the imagery moves up onto the runner tops and begins to encroach upon the plates. In response to the steady infringement of social constraints — as symbolized by the runner designs — the plate images become more active and dimensional as a metaphor for women's struggle to transcend their ever more limiting historical circumstances. To further emphasize the effort to break out of the limitations of female role expectations, the edges of the plates become more irregular, while the forms assume greater definition, a symbol of increasing individuation.
The last wing of the table begins with the place setting for the American religious leader Anne Hutchinson. The plate, which is painted in somber tones, is presented on a runner modeled upon traditional eighteenth-century mourning pictures. The imagery is intended to "mourn" the constriction of women's options that was set in motion by the Renaissance, reinforced by the Reformation, and firmly locked in place by the attitudes of the early nineteenth century, by which time Western women had few legal rights.
The advent of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution were to have important implications for women, particularly after the eighteenth-century writer and philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft applied the modern principles of democracy to her arguments for the full equality of women. Her work helped kindle the feminist revolution that erupted in the mid-nineteenth century. The changes ushered in by this rebellion, which became international in scope, are depicted in the third wing of the table.
The nineteenth-century feminist revolution made it possible for women to speak publicly; to change oppressive laws; to achieve significant political reform; to gain access to education; to enter previously restricted professions; and to begin forging organizations, philosophies, and creative forms through which women's experiences and perspective could be articulated. The plates become increasingly dimensional and unique as a metaphor for the increased freedom and individualization available as a result of what was a profound transformation in Western women's historical circumstances. The rigid, rectilinear form of the runners begins to break open as a symbol for these new privileges. Finally, the butterfly — as a symbol of liberation — becomes more prominent in both the plate and runner designs, representing women's ever-intensifying struggle to achieve both independence and full creative power.
Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party: A Symbol of Our Heritage
(Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1979), pp. 23, 61, & 105.