“The only woman” in the room

“Why she and only sound?” Oscar-nominated documentarian Immy Humes writes in the introduction to THE ONLY WIFE (Phaidon, $29.95). She looks at a 1961 photo of filmmaker Shirley Clarke with her cast and crew, all 22 men. “What does his connection mean?” »

Once Humes noticed this phenomenon, it was not difficult for her to find other examples, 100 of which are collected here: images of 20 countries between 1862 and 2020, of politicians and athletes and of scientists and writers and university students and jazz musicians and painters. , the characters posing or not, all male except one. Why was she there? Did the men see her as an “undercover or icing on the cake”? More importantly, how she feel there?

“Symbolism is the first thought that came to mind, admits Humes, but Symbolism is a “performance of inclusivity” that requires an audience; most of these groups still felt no pressure to open their doors to other excluded people. “It was something else”, she concludes, “something older”.

These women played different roles: pioneers in their field, “mascots” to bring good luck to the surrounding men, wives and daughters, cooks and assistants. But she is still an exception, and the one who “proves the rule”, writes Humes: “the rule being that women don’t belong here”.

Above, Shirley Chisholm appears with her fellow Democratic presidential candidates on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in New York, 1972.

American war correspondent Martha Gellhorn reports from Cassino, Italy in 1944. A few months later, on June 6, she will become the only woman of the 150,000 people on the beaches of Normandy to attend D-Day.

At the time this photograph was taken, in 1903 at the Summer Palace in Beijing, China’s Empress Dowager Cixi “was perhaps the most powerful woman in the world,” writes Humes. And yet: “Cixi was only able to govern in a deeply patriarchal society because of her prodigious ability to create an identity that, while very feminine and her own, accommodated traditional male aspects of power.

Photographer Ming Smith poses with the Kamoinge Workshop collective in New York in 1973, a year after becoming its first (and youngest) woman. “We’ve never seen images of our great culture anywhere, anywhere,” Smith said of the collective. Coming from the Black Power movement, the group approached the images with the intention “to have another point of view on what the media were showing us”.

The ‘first lady’ of Afro-Cuban jazz, Graciela – pictured in New York in 1947 – was born and raised in Havana before moving to New York in her twenties, to sing with the band the Afro-Cubains.

In Manchester, England, circa 1945 – at the start of post-war British decolonization – Oxford-educated anti-imperialist Amy Geraldine “Dinah” Stock meets future Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah (seated far right) , its pan-Africanist movement the West African National Secretariat and the West African Student Union.

Amid martial law in Cambridge, Maryland, in 1963 – a city where black unemployment was 30% – civil rights leader Gloria Richardson stands against the bayonet of a National Guardsman. “If I was upset enough, I didn’t have time to be scared,” she said. “Fight for what you believe in, but stop being so nice.”

English suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst was arrested outside Buckingham Palace on May 21, 1914.

Revolutionary Ieshia Evans protests the 2016 police killing of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. This now-famous image “is so much about contrast,” Humes writes. “One versus many, female versus male, Black versus white, vulnerable and fluid versus hard-shelled and robotic, true versus false, peace versus violence.”


Lauren Christensen is an editor at Book Review.

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