The Women’s Table
It was 2016. I was at the Yale University as part of a program that I had enrolled for. One of the initial rituals was to take the attendees on a 90-minute tour of the campus. A young undergrad from one of the colleges on the campus is typically put in charge of this ritual. As we began the guided tour, it became quite evident that he was an expert at this — not only was he deeply knowledgeable about the details of the campus city, he was also able to keep us engaged with his language, a bit of theatre and his own personality. You could listen to him and get lost in his stories as he walked us around, for he effortlessly waltzed between seriousness, humor, mystery nostalgia, maybe even adding a bit of his imagination for his own dose of excitement.
At some point in the tour, he walked us over to the Sterling Memorial Library. Just as we were about to enter the library, something caught my attention. Right in front of the entrance, there was this beautiful, elliptical sculpture made of green granite, resting on a rectangular base. As I walked over and stood in front of it, I noticed that there were engravings on the top, numbers that looked like they were corresponding to years in a calendar. I stood there for a bit with the ‘ I wonder what this is’ furrowed brows when a young lady standing beside me remarked, “This is the work of Maya Lin.”
I had to rush back to keep pace with the rest of the group, but the name Maya Lin stuck in my head, as did the intriguing shape and the engravings on it. I recalled watching a documentary about Maya Lin’s inspiring journey on the making of the Vietnam War Memorial many years back. I made a quiet commitment to come back and engage with it at a later date.
I happened to visit Yale for a workshop, a few weeks after the completion of the first part of the program. It was then that the story of the Women’s Table revealed itself to me. The work was commissioned in 1989 to commemorate the 20th year of Yale becoming coeducational. The engravings on the granite represented the number of women in the university, right from 1837 through to 1993. The spiral shape of the numbers told the story of the increasing presence of women at Yale.
This was a monument, a design that was both a chronicle and a compass. Almost like a poem that poses questions about the past and thus provokes reflections on the future. You look at the spiral of engravings on the stone and find yourselves traveling inwards, but sometimes looking outward as well. Maybe that was the idea.
Yale apparently had women students right from the early years, but they had to be silent listeners. While they could attend classes, they were only allowed to watch and listen. It was only sometime around the mid 19th century that women were enrolled in classes for active engagement and learning.
Was this the voice of those silent listeners from the early years of Yale? Did it hold the notes of the struggle and the inspiring doggedness Maya Lin showed in creating the War Memorial where issues with respect to gender and race, would have played its part? Was it an emphatic call-out to society, its institutions, and their biases?
The Women’s Table in my mind seemed to hold all of these stories and questions. Beautiful, intriguing, and reflective. Fluid, Strong, and Graceful. The compass in Maya Lin’s table is as strong as its chronicle.