The Supper Club

by: & Allain Daigle , January 14, 2020

Drawing from the lives of Wisconsin women, both historical and contemporaneous, students in History of Women in American Society (History 243) created The Supper Club—a local re-imagining of Judy Chicago’s foundational work of feminist art, The Dinner Party.[1] They drew inspiration from materials found in the Archives, Digital Collection, and Special Collections at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM), as well as the collections of Jewish Museum Milwaukee and the Wisconsin Museum of Quilts and Fiber Arts. They completed The Supper Club as the final project for the course based on scaffolded assignments during the course of the sixteen-week term. The assignments facilitated their encounters with primary sources, objects, texts, archives and archivists. The project also asked them to engage in skill-building themselves, typically with the assistance of friends and family members, individuals not often asked to share specialised or expert knowledge within an academic context.

In The Supper Club, the students and instructor figure women in Wisconsin’s history—many of whom are missing from or for whom only traces exist in the historical record—as historical subjects with a seat at the table. This final project and end-of-term gallery show also positioned the students as historians. They became individuals with expert knowledge of the lives of these Wisconsin women as well as of the crafting methods and techniques particular to their subjects’ time, location, and status.

Started in 1974 and first exhibited in 1979, Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party seeks to address the repeated erasure of women’s achievements from the historical and cultural record. Both anticipating and following calls from pioneering women’s historians, it seeks to position women as subjects. It also works to validate the position of women as artists and explores women’s artistic legacy.

In the introduction to Embroidering our Heritage: The Dinner Party Needlework, artist and writer Judy Chicago explains that an early motivation to create The Dinner Party was a reflection that though she identified as a woman and as an artist and existed as part of a tradition of women-artists, what troubled her was that she had ‘a general lack of knowledge of our heritage as women.’ Expanding to grapple with this perceived lack of knowledge of self and community, Chicago contends that this significantly contributed to women’s ‘continued oppression’. (1980: 8) Chicago’s effort is more than a recuperative one, which would simply re-insert women into received historical narratives and timelines.

Utilising crafting methods and techniques contemporaneous to the lived contexts of the women-identified subjects, Chicago and her team of makers succeeded in elevating the status of traditionally subjugated (read: feminised) forms of making (think: various forms of needlework including weaving and embroidery) by inserting the products of those making traditions within the walls of an art museum, a space typically reserved for men-identified artists. In response, I intended for The Supper Club assignment to prompt students to investigate marginalised individuals as well as marginalised ways of making.

The Supper Club as reinterpretation follows Chicago’s investigation of women’s history and traditionally-feminised craft and art production techniques. It also takes Chicago’s project as a model for collaboration. Chicago recognises the importance of informal communities of support: clusters of women who offered encouragement and information to one another. Members of the class found themselves moving this legacy of collaboration and community-building forward.

The success of the project and the culminating gallery show held in December 2016 in the Digital Humanities Lab of UWM’s Golda Meir Library would not have been possible without assistance from and collaboration with many people on UWM’s campus, including faculty and staff from Golda Meir Library, History, and Women’s and Gender Studies. Additionally, students called upon friends, family members, and experts within their home communities to learn and refine the skills necessary to complete aspects of the project. While many students turned to these outside-the-academy collaborators for assistance in sewing, embroidering, or block printing, many also discussed the lives of their chosen subjects, conducting interviews to glean information absent in other archives or engaging in informal conversations around their own dinner tables about the historical and personal significance these figures held.

The multi-staged assignment asked students to create several items using various methods and media and also asked students to produce several elements: written, artistic, and oral. Each student wrote two separate narratives based on research of their chosen subject: a biographical narrative and a research process narrative. In addition to a general assignment sheet for the whole project, I created two mid-point assignments (with separate assignment sheets) to help scaffold student learning and to meter their research and knowledge-creation processes. In the first narrative, students presented a brief sketch of the life of their chosen subject, and in the second students reflected on how the research was undertaken—what source materials were reviewed and what form those materials took.

In addition, this project had an artistic element: like Chicago, students created a place setting for their subjects, which included a plate and a decorated table runner. Further, each student received identical ceramic dinner plates (measuring ten-and-a-half inches in diameter) and cotton-linen blend table runners (each runner was hemmed to the same dimensions: twelve inches by sixteen inches). Based on the geographical and temporal context as well as the identities of their subjects, students found that different types of crafting traditions and design motifs were important or popular. They then attempted to replicate the designs, motifs, techniques, and application of materials.

Finally, students gave brief oral presentations on their subject, explaining both the life of the woman-identified person they chose as well as providing evidence and rationale for how and why they created their plates and table runners. These presentations took place during the final class meetings along the three sides of a triangular table planked with repurposed boards that sided a large red barn of a former dairy farm in rural Wisconsin. With space for nine, the table was commissioned and constructed especially for this project. Chicago’s table, on permanent display in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum in New York since 2007, inspired the form and design of The Supper Club’s table.

Part of the goals of the final assignment was to continue this interaction with objects, culminating in students creating objects as a means of producing and communicating historical knowledge themselves, which also allowed for important conversations about historical authority. This meant spending a good deal of time collaborating with campus and non-campus resources, including Archives and Special Collections at UWM’s Golda Meir Library, and several local museums such as the Wisconsin Quilt Museum and the Jewish Museum of Milwaukee; both the students and I found these facilitated lessons to be incredibly enriching. The goal was not to just have student work be representative or recuperative, that is, to re-insert women into common or familiar narratives.

Students grappled with how historical knowledge is constructed, through what means, and how that knowledge is or is not (traditionally) validated. We frequently discussed that there is hierarchical meaning embedded in calling women’s embroidery ‘craft’ and a man’s painting ‘art.’ Chicago emphasised this point and the students were able to encounter the politics of knowledge production through their own research and production.

Throughout the course, students were asked to interrogate how history is produced. Inherent in that pursuit is the understanding that history does not just exist – it is a creation. Together and with our course texts, we examined assumptions regarding what serves as valid historical source material and how non-traditional source material (think: photographs, letters, maps, clothing) can be incorporated into historical narratives. Completing The Supper Club required students to use primary sources to reconceptualise the variable forms that knowledge takes, assess the relative value often ascribed to these forms, and transmit created knowledge through both written narratives and physical objects.

In addition to facilitated museum and archives visits, students also engaged with local makers, friends, and family members to develop the skills necessary for completing several facets of this project. These interactions juxtaposed academic knowledge and knowledge from home and local resources. Through the research and knowledge-creating process, students gradually positioned themselves as authoritative voices of women’s history, thereby subverting traditional classroom and academic hierarchies.

Historian Joan Scott suggests that creating history can serve as a form of critique, a way to identify as well as to throw off the yoke of androcentric, patriarchal narratives and epistemologies. (2007: 19-38) In part, the curriculum for History of Women in American Society served as critique: namely, of traditional practices and ideologies that shape practices of teaching and learning in a university-level history classroom. But I found that taking up Scott’s call to open doors and investigate silences was also generative – it made space for voice and authority (and its many manifestations) in the classroom. Though I could guide students through discussions about the ways in which authority is constructed, relational, and a space they, too, could occupy, how they responded to my facilitation and received Scott’s and others’ calls to engage in necessary critique was not entirely within my control.

Furthermore, the intellectual work I called for the students to complete is not often asked for in an introductory-level undergraduate classroom; there was a good chance they would reject the vision I had for the course’s final project. However, through the process of engaging in personal reflection, writing, making, speaking, and exploring the lives women-identified people without a seat at the tableand presenting their body of work to an engaged and excited audiencestudents did begin to understand themselves as authorities. As they worked through completing assignments associated with The Supper Club, students conducted research and responded to writing, making, and speaking prompts that progressively worked to figure them as authorities, historical and otherwise.

As she discusses in the introduction to Embroidering Our Heritage, Judy Chicago’s education left her with the understanding that she had no woman-identified role models from history with whom to identify. She was ‘educated to think that women had never achieved anything of significance,’ a fact which allowed her to easily ‘believe that we were incapable of ever accomplishing important work’. (Chicago 1980: 8)

Not seeing women-identified people like herself either as successful artists or as people who achieved things that were worthy of social recognition, left Chicago feeling as though her drive to create art would be a waste of time. Though she doesn’t elaborate on her initial investigation of women’s history, she comments that through her own research, apart from that which was directed by a nationalised education system, she found women-identified people who had ambitions much the same as hers. Chicago’s research allowed her to make the powerful conclusion that ‘women had always made significant contributions to the development of human civilisation, but these were consistently ignored, denied, or trivialized’. (1980: 8) This knowledge allowed Chicago to realise a sense of place in a lineage of women of the past, and with that, a sense of community and shared understanding.

Armed with the knowledge that although women’s and women-identified people’s contributions have been systematically and strategically erased from the historical accounts that many students encounter, Chicago developed an understanding that women did, in fact, make contributions to society. This realisation proved transformational for Chicago, who now could place herself within a community of creators, a community that transcended both space and time. Clearly, this group identification legitimised and strengthened Chicago’s drive to create. It would also allow her to present herself as both an authority on women’s history and the history of women’s arts and crafts movements and techniques. The authorial drive that Chicago now possessed impacted her sense of self and was a source of personal well-being. She remarks that the lack of women’s historical presence and accounts of their accomplishments ‘caused us [women-identified people] all to have an unconsciously diminished feeling of self-worth and a lack of pride in women’. (1980: 21)

While I did not turn to The Dinner Party or Chicago’s reflections and insights about both how and why she fostered its creation as a detailed road map, they certainly had great bearing on my general curriculum design, especially for the final project. Though much has changed about the political and social landscape of the United States since Chicago attended school, there is much that has remained constant.

In the present-day, consumers of news and social media are confronted with daily accounts of misogyny, sexism, and repeated affronts to women-identified people’s bodily autonomy. At the same time, we are seeing an explosion of both fictional and historical narratives that figure women-identified people (and other marginalised groups) as powerful, capable, and valuable. Therefore, students and educators alike are confronted by and asked to grapple with this cognitive dissonance. In my role as instructor, I chose to facilitate student development of historical thinking skills through and with object-based teaching and learning as a way to help us all begin to navigate such a complex intersection.

Assignments that led to the creation of The Supper Club, and this course in general, asked students to be more than active receptors and reproducers of rote knowledge provided by instructor lectures or course reading material: names, dates, ‘facts,’ historical ‘truths.’ Furthermore, it asked them to move beyond developing simple critical thinking skills; students would not just ask ‘who, what, where, when, why’ questions of the visual sources they chose to present on.

Building upon the knowledge of names, dates, and ‘facts’, and the insights produced by rudimentary critical thinking, students ventured into a third tier, a cognitive location that called them to engage in critical and contextualised analysis, just as Judy Chicago did. Here, students questioned their assumptions (about received historical narratives), in addition to the crucial step of identifying what those assumptions even were, as they evaluated primary source material both in the context of available written accounts as well as in relation to other primary sources. In completing this assignment, and in doing the work of an introductory-level history course, students did the work of historians.

Notes

[1]. As a group and near the end of the semester, members of History of Women in American Society named the collective final project The Supper Club (with the suggestion that it be pronounced sup-HER club).

Along with fish fries, beer, and cheese curds, supper clubs have long been a culinary and cultural staple in Wisconsin. For a primer on what the supper club is and what a patron can expect after entering its doors. See Ann Christenson ‘Anatomy of a Wisconsin Supper Club’, Milwaukee Magazine, 26 January 2018, https://www.milwaukeemag.com/anatomy-of-a-wisconsin-supper-club/.

A number of books, cookbooks, and documentaries provide more context. See Ron Faiola, Wisconsin Supper Clubs: Another Round, 6th ed. (Agate Midway, 2016); Mary Bergin, Wisconsin Supper Club Cookbook: Iconic Fare and Nostalgia from Landmark Eateries, Guilford, Connecticut: Globe Pequot Press, 2015.

Download article

Newsletter

Feeling inspired by MAI? Dedicated to intersectional gender politics in visual culture? Want to keep your feminist imagination on fire? MAI newsletter will help refresh your zeal for feminism with first-hand news on our new content. 

Subscribe below to stay up-to-date.

* We'll never share your email address with any third parties.

WHO SUPPORTS US

The team of MAI supporters and contributors is always expanding. We’re honoured to have a specialist collective of editors, whose enthusiasm & talent gave birth to MAI.

However, to turn our MAI dream into reality, we also relied on assistance from high-quality experts in web design, development and photography. Here we’d like to acknowledge their hard work and commitment to the feminist cause. Our feminist ‘thank you’ goes to:


Dots+Circles – a digital agency determined to make a difference, who’ve designed and built our MAI website. Their continuous support became a digital catalyst to our idealistic project.
Guy Martin – an award-winning and widely published British photographer who’s kindly agreed to share his images with our readers

Chandler Jernigan – a talented young American photographer whose portraits hugely enriched the visuals of MAI website
Matt Gillespie – a gifted professional British photographer who with no hesitation gave us permission to use some of his work
Julia Carbonell – an emerging Spanish photographer whose sharp outlook at contemporary women grasped our feminist attention
Ana Pedreira – a self-taught Portuguese photographer whose imagery from women protests beams with feminist aura
And other photographers whose images have been reproduced here: Cezanne Ali, Les Anderson, Mike Wilson, Annie Spratt, Cristian Newman, Peter Hershey