As friends and families around the United States gather together for their Thanksgiving dinners today, many (according to a plethora of trendy newspaper stories) dread the sort of political discussion that raises the risk of appetite loss and/or indigestion. I recall holidays at home with my own family and my mother’s requests that I refrain from bringing up subjects such as nuclear disarmament or gay rights at the table. She, too, would remain politely silent despite the antagonistic comments of others. One in particular, an offhand remark that doctors shouldn’t treat people with HIV/AIDS because they deserve to die, still burns in my heart.
With that in mind, my Thanksgiving morning this year was spent reading about Judy Chicago and the various women commemorated in her installation, “The Dinner Table.” This year marks the 40th anniversary of the masterpiece, widely regarded as a cornerstone of feminist art. When asked about what had inspired her, Chicago recalled an actual dinner party she had attended in 1974: “The men at the table were all professors,” she said, “and the women all had doctorates but weren’t professors. The women had all the talent, and they sat there silent while the men held forth.”
For centuries, women had no “place at the table” when it came to political discourse. Chicago’s imaginary banquet hall features a triangular table with 39 place settings for influential female figures. The contributions from an additional 999 women are honored with names inscribed on “The Heritage Floor.” These women, Bertha von Suttner among them, represent the foundations upon which feminist progress was built.
Though Bertha was invited to numerous international parliamentary conferences during her lifetime, she attended only as a guest, since governmental business was the nearly exclusive province of men. (Royalty allowed for some rare exceptions.) Likewise, in political discussions of the day, her viewpoints and ideas were often summarily dismissed solely because she was a woman. This explains why she, along with many other female writers of her time, used a gender-neutral pseudonym, “B. Oulotte,” when publishing her early political and philosophical essays. (Bertha’s nickname in the Suttner household was “Boulotte,” which roughly translates to “Fatty.”) For her landmark book The Machine Age, Bertha went by the name “Jemand,” the German word for “someone” or “anyone.” As she explained in her Memoirs: “I was afraid that if the book were signed with a woman’s name, it would not reach the readers for whom it was expressly designed, for in scientific circles there remains so much prejudice against the capacity of women as thinkers.”
This Thanksgiving, we should feel grateful for the progress made over the past century, not only in women’s rights but in the rights of other previously silenced and marginalized peoples. Much hard work remains. Even so, our holiday dinner-table conversations can build upon that progress and inspire us to learn how the voices of yesterday helped to lift up our voices today.