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

Join the discussion 7 Comments

  • Cathy Saraniti says:

    Love reading these Kathi! I find them very insightful! You’ll be happy to know they get shared with my girls!

  • Elizabeth Novak says:

    Oh, this was a good one. I think I would need a large dinner table because there are so many I would love to invite for dinner. So, off the top of head, my list would include Gloria Steinem, Hillary Clinton, Meryl Streep, Barbara Walters and Billy Jean King. From each of them I would like to know who was their inspiration, what was the most rewarding experience and what was their most challenging experience.

  • Denise von Rhine says:

    My 5 would be:
    1. Meryl Streep- The absolute best actress of our time. She is a chameleon and can truly create a new persona with each character she inhabits. She is intelligent
    , thoughtful, well spoken and willing to stand up for what she believes in.
    2. Madame Marie Curie- intelligent, curious and ahead of her time. Worked in a field dominated by men in an era when women stayed home and managed the family.
    3. Linda Rhonstadt- Love all of her music. Talented, very soft spoken, but not afraid to voice her opinions. One of the first women on the mega tour rock circuit breaking barriers for those coming after her.
    4. Helen Keller- Overcame her physical disabilities and was one of the first Blind/deaf persons to earn a batchelors degree. She became an educator, author, inspirational public speaker and world traveler. She campaigned for women’s suffrage, the disabled, the labor movement and many socialist causes.
    5. Eleanor Roosevelt- Inspirational! Have always been in awe of Eleanor. Diplomat, Humanitarian, activist, civil rights proponent. Would truly love to have met her.

    Sorry, one more person I would invite if I could would be my Mother. She is my personal hero. I think she would have been able to hold her own with these ladies and she loved to learn. A trait she passed on to all of her children. There are many others but we have to limit them, so my dinner invitations would be these 6.

  • Ellen Bollinger says:

    Jane Goodall as she created a genre of study that has informed so much for the human cousins. She did it during a time when women were not supported in independent study or travel, married and raised a child in the rainforest and is still sharing her knowledge and concern for primates at the age of 80. I’d ask her about her son and how she balanced raising him with her chimpanzee family. Where did she get the cohones to strike out for parts unknown and the stamina to wait for acceptance by the chimps.

    Joni Mitchell. Another pioneer from the U.K. She suffered great personal loss for her art, is as gifted at painting as she was at singing her narrative of life and created the truest songbook for baby boom women with hippie proclivities. I’d ask about the daughter she gave up for adoption (“A Little Green”), her regrets and how she was recovering from her stroke.

    Empress Dowager Cixi. She was an imperial concubine who gave birth to an Emperor in the late nineteenth century. Literate, she became informed about state affairs and took power when her son died by launching a coup with her younger sister. Ruthless and brilliant, wanted progress but not to the detriment of traditional values. She built the railroad and navy and reigned for nearly 50 years. I’d ask if she’d poisoned her son to gain power? Did she really admire the British dignitaries who visited or was it a ploy to stop them from trying to depose her?

    Frida Kahlo channeled great physical pain into a lasting legacy of brilliantly colored, some say surreal, she said realistic paintings. She loved animals, flowers and was a true survivor. “I suffered two grave accidents in my life,” she once said, “One in which a streetcar knocked me down … The other accident is Diego.” I’d ask her what about him was worth the infidelity and humiliation?

    And I guess I need an American too so the one who I’d like to query over a fine meal would be Laura Bush. How did a sensitive book lover end up with HIM? I’d ask if the car accident in her teens was the impetus that sentenced her to life with a frivolous scion and how she justified his lying about WMD in light of the death of our soldiers and his allowing billions of $ to be moved from the U.S. government to the private sector (his pals). Are they still a couple or do they appear together for ‘show’? How did she raise such grounded daughters?

  • Denise says:

    Eleanor for sure, bold, bright and fearless
    Michelle Obama -duh
    Edith Piaf- I would light up a cigarette with her….
    Frieda Kahlo-her views and insights of the world and art
    My mother- when she wasn’t afraid and full of life

    It would be a long night with laughter and tears and much good wine and food! And that’s the true truth

  • Kris says:

    Yes, Eleanor. I have an intriguing photograph in my office of her graciously conversing with Japanese-American students on our campus not too long before EO 9066 took them away to internment camps.

    Queen Liliuokalani, leader of the native Hawaiian people, who suffered her own house arrest.

    Definitely Michelle, and Rosalyn Carter. I would like to hear them talk about social action, mentorship, and being world leaders after the White House.

    Historian Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard, as she wraps up her tenure there.

  • Susan Saegert says:

    This is my favorite Motherwell blog of all time! It is fun, I love your choices, and the writing is top notch. I’m glad I get to really have dinner with you some times.