A Sip of the Past, Present and Future at A Feminist Tea Party

A fifties-style tea parlor, complete with frilly linens, flowered wallpaper and hostesses donning cinched-waist skirts, is not where one would expect to find a group of 5C students discussing contemporary feminist issues. This is just one of many expectations that artists Caitlin Rueter and Suzanne Stroebe are challenging as part of their A Feminist Tea Party project.

A Feminist Tea Party’s website describes the project as lying “somewhere between a contemporary consciousness-raising group, a performance, an installation, and a joke.” The project came to Pomona’s Seaver House Oct. 26 and 27, and will also come to Seal Court at Scripps Oct. 31 at 6 p.m. for A Feminist Tea Party: Low Tea. Wednesday’s discussion flowed between subjects such as gender roles in dance, 'slut walks' and reclaiming derogatory terms, and generational divides.

The set draws on “imagery from 1950s television sitcoms and consumer goods advertisements,” Rueter said. “It is important to us that the installation evidences a criticality. The false walls that frame the set are left bare in the back with raw wooden braces to remind guests of the theatricality of the environment we’ve created.”

According to Rueter, the tea party setting is intended to relax guests “with comfortable places to sit, where no one is put on the spot or expected to join the conversation unless they want to, where, in line with 'the personal as political,' where no response is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’—we want to create a comfortable and safe environment for difficult conversations."

“The tea and homemade snacks serve as a social lubricant, disarming guests and co-hosts so that conversation can flow freely,” she added.

Rueter added, “I had suggested an interactive tea party performance that was a progressive response to the right-wing Tea Party protest movement that was only just beginning in 2009." Rueter and Stroebe then decided to combine forces to create the Feminist Tea Party project as it is today—a callback to the consciousness-raising groups of the 1970s as an interactive conversation.

The project is now a part of Pacific Standard Time (PST), an initiative spearheaded by the Getty involving over 60 art institutions in Southern California. According to the Pomona College Museum of Art Curator of Academic Programs Terri Geis, PST includes exhibitions and events that “explore and celebrate art in Southern California from 1945-1980, a period when the region became a vibrant cultural center.”

Pomona College Museum of Art is participating in PST, and A Feminist Tea Party is one of “a series of visits by artists to the campus to foster a dialogue” on the “tremendous changes that were occurring in society in the period, including the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement.”

This presentation of A Feminist Tea Party was Rueter and Stroebe’s first time at a college, and they emphasized that they don’t want tea to feel like a class or panel discussion.

“Sometimes [the conversations are] academic in nature but we want to avoid the pressure of the typical college setting,” Rueter said, mentioning that the fifties décor helps remove students from the class environment.

“We want the space to be critical, but we also want to be clear that this is not a panel discussion, not a classroom, but a space for important discussions and also laughter,” Rueter said. “It’s a place to make new friends.”