Two experiences happened recently that inspired today’s essay. My husband and I were sitting in the lobby bar at the Hotel Bethlehem in Pennsylvania, waiting to meet friends, and were admiring the scores of photos of famous people that adorned the walls. Deliberately nursing our drinks before dinner, we started a game, guessing for one another which of those famous former patrons we’d choose as dinner companions. After bemoaning how few women were on the walls – at least compared to men – I silently made my choices and then my husband astounded me by guessing every one correctly! I can never really claim to be misunderstood.
A few months later, spending a day in NYC before an evening at the theater, I enticed a friend to go to the Brooklyn Museum with me so that I could once again see an art installation entitled “The Dinner Party” by Judy Chicago. From Wikipedia:
Widely regarded as the first epic feminist artwork, it functions as a symbolic history of women in Western civilization. There are 39 elaborate place settings arranged along a triangular table for 39 mythical and historical famous women. Each unique place setting includes a hand-painted china plate, ceramic flatware and chalice, and a napkin with an embroidered gold edge. The settings rest upon elaborately embroidered runners, executed in a variety of needlework styles and techniques. The dinner table stands on The Heritage Floor, made up of more than 2,000 white luster-glazed triangular-shaped tiles, each inscribed in gold scripts with the name of one of 999 women who have made a mark on history.
In real life I hate dinner parties. I used to have to attend and host so many in my corporate role and I never forgot how much work they entailed. Therefore I’m offering a twist on the parlor game that my husband and I played:
• Pick five women, each considered a success in her field, with whom you’d like to have a one-on-one dinner.
• It can’t be someone you know.
• Why did you choose this person?
• What would you like to ask her?
Here are my choices…and by the way, this is my game, and I assume that someone else is doing the cooking.
Serena Williams – Serena has long been one of my heroes and her list of accomplishments is too long to list. I love tennis and she and her sister have fundamentally changed the game for women. I am always learning something about her that wows me. When she won the Australian Open while pregnant, I could only remember the early days of my own first pregnancy, too tired to stand up in the shower let alone run around a court. She is an Amazon! But, in 2015 Maria Sharapova earned almost twice as much as Serena from endorsements and appearances, despite only one-quarter the singles Grand Slam wins. It wasn’t until Sharapova was suspended for using a banned substance that Williams surpassed her in total earnings. I want to ask Serena about how she handles the inherent racism in the world of athletic endorsements and hear her thoughts about the business of women and sports.
Sheryl Sandberg – I resisted reading Lean In for the longest time. What could Sheryl Sandberg teach me? She had a silver spoon in her mouth and went to the college in the Ivy League with the most ivy. Then I read it. I thought she was brave and took on issues about women in the work place that she didn’t need to take on – her career was doing fine! She has become the spokesperson for an entire generation of women. She’s a titan. I want to ask her for career advice and how to get on a board of directors for pay.
Ellen Pao – A sister Jersey girl by way of parents from China and attendance at Princeton and Harvard Law and Harvard Business School, Ellen Pao has become widely known for filing a gender discrimination lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins in 2012 and losing. After that she became the interim CEO at Reddit and was the subject of broad criticism when five Reddit communities were banned. She subsequently resigned from Reddit (founded, by the way, by Serena William’s fiancé) and founded, with other women, a non-profit organization Project Include that offers HR advice and services to start-ups. She is finishing a book on the aftermath of Pao vs. Kleiner Perkins with the working title Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change. By all reports Ellen Pao was a good student who kept her head down and her nose to the grindstone. She did everything she was supposed to do, yet had her name and reputation vilified in the press. I want to ask her would she do it again? What advice does she have for women in business?
Mary Barra – Mary Barra started working at GM at the age of 18 and is now the CEO! That is a success story! Her dad worked at Pontiac for 39 years. She went to the GM Institute, now Kettering University for a degree in electrical engineering and then GM sent her to Stanford for an MBA. She is one of the most powerful women in the world. I want to ask her about dinner at the kitchen table when she was a girl. I want to share stories about growing up working class and what drives us to achieve…though apparently she was a bit more driven than I was!
Ruth Bader Ginsburg – What liberal woman would NOT want to have dinner with the notorious RBG? We know that she is a Supreme Court Justice, grew up in Brooklyn, and, while attending Harvard Law School, was asked by a professor, along with other women, “How do you justify taking a spot from a qualified man?” But as a Rutgers alumna, I did not appreciate that she was on the Rutgers Law School faculty, which openly acknowledged that they would pay her less because her husband had a well-paying job. She co-founded the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU and argued 6 gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court, winning five. Listening to her secretary, she started using the word “gender” rather than “sex” in her arguments so as not to distract the judges. I wouldn’t ask her a thing; I would bring the best bottle of wine I could find and just say thank you.
I would love to hear about your chosen dinner companions.
“If you have knowledge let others light their candles in it.” Margaret Fuller