Laura Cottingham, “Eating from the “Dinner Party” Plates and other myths, metaphors and moments of lesbian enunciation and its art movement [from Seeing Through the Seventies: Feminism and Art, pp. 133-160

by chunte4

First hand experiences with exclusion and feelings of mistrust from second wave feminist communities are neither new nor surprising. In her article Cottingham repeatedly points out the extremely problematic idea of an overriding unity despite different cultural and racial backgrounds as well as differences in sexuality or one’s biological sex. She exemplifies this problem in a somewhat ironic way by bringing up the experience of one woman quoted as saying: “I observed a number of our organizations grow and then fall apart. This collapse occurred for a number of reasons” such as “disruptions” by “transsexual men claiming a right to lesbian space.” (pg. 141) Through this quote Cottingham unintentionally reveals bigotry of second wave feminism against transsexual men who most likely identified as women, yet were not taken seriously by their peers due to their sex. Such prejudice was so ingrained in the movement that many women, even women who had experienced a feeling of isolation within that group, lacked a full awareness of it. It does not surprise me then that lesbian artists with first hand experience of bigotry within a movement that supposedly accepted all women would have a tendency to form very different narratives about sexuality and gender in their works than mainstream feminists.

Cottingham compares the works of Judy Chicago and Tee Corine, the latter being a lesbian, as an example of the distinction between the artistic approaches of two women of different social classes making what they see as feminist work. Chicago, as a heterosexual woman who gained a firm spot in both feminist circles and the art world, shows preference for exaggerated, metaphorical representations of vaginas that, despite the subject matter, conformed somewhat more to the expectations of an industry still very uncomfortable with more blunt, less abstract depictions of feminine imagery. I imagine the Corine’s work, which depicted vaginas much more explicitly probably approached her work from the perspective of someone expecting rejection, or rather misrepresentation from all sides and thus wanted to reclaim her sex and sexuality in the most direct, unambiguous way possible. Unlike Chicago, Corine probably could not find a safe space for her work even within the feminist community, so for her, coding as aggressively as Chicago often did must not have seemed like an option. Corine, nor any lesbian artist should never have had to feel restricted in any way with regards to their art, yet due to the heavy atmosphere of intolerance hanging over the movement, many lesbian artists probably did feel this way often, and their works, unintentionally or not, became altered as a result. While the feminist movement has grown significantly since the seventies, the necessary distinctions made between lesbian art and feminist art during the time remain as a stark reminder that feminism, to me at least, needs to continually look at its past mistakes and evolve past them to becomes a truly all inclusive, non-discriminatory movement that can make positive changes in the lives of all women.