A table is set in Brooklyn.
It’s not your typical dinner party, but it’s certainly one I think of often. It’s a piece of installation artwork by artist and feminist Judy Chicago, and this dinner party lives in the Brooklyn Museum. Thirty-nine places are set for 39 historic female guests. Virginia Woolf, Georgia O’Keeffe, Sojourner Truth, and others sit in solidarity around a triangular table. Each place setting is designed to celebrate that individual, and is adorned with the symbols of their life and work. Viewers stand just outside the room, able to walk the perimeter of the table separated by a small cast iron bannister.
A twenty-something year old living in Brooklyn, I’d often find myself staring at that table. After finishing a run in Prospect Park, leaving a weekend brunch with friends, walking home from my subway stop on Grand Army Plaza. Drawn to that room like a magnet to its pole. Waking the triangular perimeter, hand on the cold metal rail, lost in my imagination, lost in Judy Chicago’s imagination, chasing a question - “Judy… what did they say?”
Maybe they discussed life. Struggle and strife. Success and celebration. About their journeys and destinations and all the stops along the way. Maybe they talked about mothers, and fathers, and sisters and brothers, and children, and grandchildren. Maybe they talked about the earth, and the stars, and the universe. Of chaos and order. Of meaning and meaninglessness. Maybe they talked about the weather, or what they ate for breakfast. Or the changing seasons. Maybe they talked about death.
As I imagine this feminist assembly today, I’m certain one word would rise in the conversation, traveling across the planes and angles of that iconic table. A word with a definition as diverse as the women who carry it in discussion - strength.
Strong, for many of us, is a powerful signal of a newly recognized feminine identity. And with new, changing, ever-important meaning, I asked some wise birds to share what strength means to them.
"Strong has never really been about how a body looks. It's about how a human lives. It’s about lining up who we are inside with how we show up in the body we have.” - Lauren Fleshman, Oiselle Athlete, Author & Coach
“Strength is having the ability to see your weaknesses and not feel the need to fix them. Having the courage to ask for help when you misstep, or when you feel embarrassed and insecure. It's being able to bring every part of yourself - your past, your present, what you want for your future, into every single thing that that you do. Strength doesn't mean having the answers or being the best, it means knowing the difference between giving your best and doing what's expected from you. Strength is knowing that the parts of yourself that you’re most ashamed of are almost always the keys to who you are.” - Kelly Roberts, Oiselle Ambassador, Muse, Volée
"To me, being strong is more than just a feeling, but a mindset- it's the power to keep going when you want to quit, it's getting back up after a fall, it's the courage to take on a new challenge without the fear of failure. To me, being strong can be different for different people, but in general, it's a mindset of believing in yourself." - Kami Beckendorf, Oiselle Designer
"When I look at the Volée I see a group made up of individuals who have overcome or are still battling injuries, life setbacks, heartbreaks and yet choose to put one foot in front of the other to run. Their strength to continue on despite what they face is really what it means to be strong.” - Natalie Nibler, Oiselle Volée
"Strength can be raw and muscular and powerful. But the way we often remember it, the times it inspires us, are when we witness strength as a response to despair or difficulty. It can be seen when people rise from the ashes, when they ask for help, when they spot a weakness in themselves and work toward self-improvement.” - Sarah Overpeck, Team Birdstrike, Oiselle Volée
“Being strong is lifting yourself up (be your own #1 fan for life) but it’s also looking to your right and left and helping your whole team and community rise. Being strong is making more room at the top.” - Stephanie Propper, Oiselle Runner, Flywheel Instructor
"It’s not about the days it feels easy and everything falls into place. It’s the days when I’m not sure if I can make it, when I begin to doubt myself, when life seems to ask for more than I think I have to give. It’s when despite adversity, I rise.” - Kamilah Spears, Oiselle Volée
“Being strong to me means always finding a reason or way to keep going. To keep moving toward your goals, keep standing up for your beliefs. When you are strong you find a way. Nothing stops you.” - Kara Goucher, Oiselle Professional Athlete
One of my favorite pieces of lore is how Judy Chicago brought the masterpiece to life. It took a village to set the table, and Chicago worked with a group of volunteers - women from all backgrounds, skill sets, ethnicities, and histories - to bring the piece to life. This collective table setting reminds me of Oiselle. Our community coming together, meeting at trail heads and coffee shops and track meets and road races. Carrying our metaphorical plates and spoons and forks.
The Dinner Party is not immune to criticism. Every choice in Chicago’s creative process has been examined, challenged, critiqued. And while it may falter, one idea continues to ring true.
The women are here to eat.
Yours. Together. In Strength.
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