The Other Puritan Dinner Party

Years ago, I saw feminist artist Judy Chicago’s legendary installation The Dinner Party (1979), a table set with hand-fashioned settings for 39 women guests of honor from Ishtar and Judith to Christine de Pisan and Sojourner Truth.

Seeing the Dinner Party was, of course, a religious experience, just as Chicago intended it to be.

I found myself most captivated by the place setting for Anne Hutchinson (1591 – 1643), the feminist Puritan who led study groups in her own home in Boston and weighed in on thorny theological questions—works versus grace—that divided leaders of church and colony. For the record, Anne Hutchinson stood on the side of grace, communicated immediately to believers by the Holy Spirit, no need for Church leaders.

For her outspokenness, Anne Hutchinson was put on trial by clergy and colonial leaders for dishonoring the “fathers of the commonwealth” and of other behavior “not fitting for [her] sex.” She was put under house arrest, then banished from the colony. In her story, I saw the story of so many religions that attain worldly power and institutional status only to crack down on the voices of their most visionary women.

In the context of my own faith, I’ve seen contemporary institutional Mormonism has retreated from some of the most visionary gendered elements of our theology, including public discussion of our Mother in Heaven, women’s participation in healing by the laying on of hands, and women’s washings and anointings before childbirth. In the 1990s some feminists who restored these elements of Mormon history to our consciousness were excommunicated.

When I saw the Dinner Party, I was dismayed to find that the place Chicago set for Hutchinson was designed in colors of grief and mourning, sadness and loss. No doubt, her life was not easy, but I prefer to remember Hutchinson—and others like her—as women who refused to surrender the freedoms of mind and spirit they found through their faith, no matter how the human institutions of religion closed in on them.

I’m sure that if I were lucky enough to share a Thanksgiving dinner table with Anne Hutchinson, we’d have a riotously good time.