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‘The Only Woman’ in the Room

“Why her and only her?” the Oscar-nominated documentarian Immy Humes writes in the introduction to THE ONLY WOMAN (Phaidon, $29.95). She is looking at a 1961 photo of the filmmaker Shirley Clarke with her cast and crew, all 22 of them men. “What does her onlines mean?”

Once Humes noticed this phenomenon, it wasn’t difficult for her to find more examples, 100 of which are collected here: images from 20 countries between 1862 and 2020, of politicians and athletes and scientists and writers and university students and jazz musicians and painters , the figures either posing or not, all male except for one. Why was she there? Did the men see her as an “infiltrator or cherry on top”? More important, how did she feel being there?

“Tokenism is the first thought that leapt to mind,” Humes admits, but tokenism is a “performance of inclusivity” that requires an audience; Most of these groups did not yet feel any pressure to open their doors to the excluded others. “This was something else,” she concludes, “something older.”

These women played various roles: trailblazers in their field, “mascots” to bestow good luck upon the surrounding men, wives and daughters, cooks and assistants. But always she is an exception, and one who “proves the rule,” Humes writes: “the rule being that women do not belong here.”

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

The American war correspondent Martha Gellhorn reports from Cassino, Italy, in 1944. Just months later, on June 6, she would become the only woman of 150,000 present on the beaches of Normandy to witness 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,” Humes writes. And yet: “Cixi was only able to rule in a deeply patriarchal society because of her prodigious ability to create an identity that, while very much female and her own, adapted traditional male aspects of power.”

The photographer Ming Smith poses with the Kamoinge Workshop collective in New York City in 1973, a year after she became its first female member (and its youngest). “We never saw images of our great culture anywhere, anywhere,” Smith said of the collective. An offshoot of the Black Power movement, the group approached images with the intention to “have another point of view from what the media was showing us.”

The “First Lady” of Afro-Cuban jazz, Graciela — pictured in New York City in 1947 — was born and raised in Havana before moving to New York in her 20s, to sing with the band the Afro-Cubans.

In Manchester, England, around 1945 — at the beginning of Britain’s postwar decolonization — the Oxford-educated anti-imperialist Amy Geraldine “Dinah” Stock meets with the future Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah (seated at the far right), his Pan-Africanist movement the West African National Secretariat, and the West African Students’ Union.

Amid martial law in Cambridge, Md., in 1963 — a town where Black unemployment was 30 percent — the civil rights leader Gloria Richardson stands up to a National Guardsman’s bayonet. “If I was upset enough, I didn’t have time to be afraid,” she said. “Fight for what you believe in, but stop being so nice.”

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

The revolutionary Ieshia Evans protests the police killing of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., in 2016. This now famous image “is so much about contrast,” Humes writes. “One versus many, female versus male, Black versus white, vulnerable and flowy versus hard shelled and robotic, right versus wrong, peace versus violence.”


Lauren Christensen is an editor at the Book Review.

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