Elm City Scrapbook is a column alternately written by Daniella Sanchez and Catherine Kausikan, which each week reflects on a different artwork in and around New Haven.
A few days ago, I watched as a dachshund took perky little steps in the water atop the Women’s Table, pausing every few steps for a dainty drink. The fountain is a hub for such quotidian activity: the sleek, jutting stone is cut at the perfect height for sitting, while its location in the heart of campus is an easy stopping point for students and dog walkers alike. Even the name of the monument invites familiarity. The Women’s Table, an artwork commissioned to celebrate 20 years of women at Yale, is domestic, intimate, unassuming.
I think it is the quiet monumentality of the work that draws me in. The grounded solidity of its form is comforting yet powerful in its simplicity. Some mornings I sit at the tables outside Sterling, and the Table is a presence I always register, the moving water a soothing soundtrack in the background of whatever I’m working on. Writing this piece, I’m listening to the fountain as I read how Maya Lin conceptualized the spiraling pattern atop the work to reflect the potential of the future, while its placement on Cross Campus was indeed a means to nurture community. That the piece is so ambiguous is perhaps its greatest strength. The numbers carved on the slab succinctly mark the absence and presence of women at Yale, betraying just enough information for us to wonder about the stories behind these delicately curving records. Moreover, some have speculated that the artwork’s modest appearance points to how women have often been overlooked in the university’s history. Nineteenth century women were considered “silent listeners” who could sit in Yale classrooms but were forbidden to speak. Though Lin’s intentions with the design of the Women’s Table remains an open question, the work succeeds in its ambiguity in subtly reflecting a female experience difficult to pinpoint in words alone.
This past summer, an experience I had led me to reflect more deeply on my own femininity. For the first time, I felt how deeply unfair it is that women must bear the ugly realities of living in patriarchy, while men are allowed simply to imagine these injustices in abstract and walk away unscathed. As I returned to Yale, walking past the Women’s Table with this understanding was strange and frustrating. The artwork’s accessible, ambiguous domesticity suddenly felt inadequate. I found myself wondering if such monuments to women end up entrenching an image of us as stoically enduring through injustice, the artwork’s muteness a reflection of submission. Read this way, the work becomes a lackluster celebration of a frankly laughable milestone, a piece that fails to emphasize the struggles many underwent in service of our access to education. Admittedly, I don’t think this is what the Women’s Table set out, or needs to achieve. I still really like the artwork. The quiet strength it exudes is something I hope to embody one day. But perhaps, sometimes we also need art that confronts us, exposing plainly truths so uncomfortable it is impossible to sit and forget them amidst an artwork’s beautiful, but inactionable modesty.
The Women’s Table can be found on Cross Campus, right outside Sterling Memorial Library.