A huge percentage of the photographic record of Western culture is incredibly boring: endless large groups of formally dressed, formally arranged men facing the camera. Just look to class pictures from every imaginable school, association, company, office, club, court, government body and political movement (from the revolutionary to the regressive).
The overwhelming majority of these groups were all male—but it’s uncanny to see how many women snuck in, one at a time, to become the only woman in the room. Trawling through the archives, I felt like I was playing “Where’s Waldo?” or, rather, “Where’s Walda?” I found pleasure in spotting these solitary women, and then, most of all, unraveling the mystery of them: What were they doing there?
I first got hooked by the artists, those beguiling group portrait photographs of a school, a movement, a bunch of brilliant friends and rivals. The one that struck me most showed radical filmmaker Shirley Clarke celebrating her first feature in 1961. She stands, glass in hand, the only woman among 22 well-wishing men who fill the frame: her cast, crew and backers. To me, it spoke volumes about this person often described as “the only woman filmmaker” of her time.
This book is, essentially, a study of power, as seen in 100 photographs of groups of men—artists, workers, musicians, dentists, lawyers—with only a single woman. Spanning more than a century and a half, from 1862 to 2020, the snapshots were taken in 20 countries.
Against this wide variety of eras, places, occupations and cultures is a repetitive counterpoint of sameness. The same ludicrous constellation of many men, one woman, appears over and over again. That tension between repetition and particularity is one of the peculiar pleasures of looking at the pictures as a group.
Together, these images capture moments along a wide, slow current of change. Each offers forensic evidence of patriarchy on parade, along with all the other forces of domination. Below, explore a selection of ten of the most powerful photos from The Only Woman, arranged chronologically and accompanied by extended captions.
Unknown nurse in Boston, Massachusetts, 1890
We know where this photo was taken: Boston City Hospital, one of thousands of public hospitals founded in the wake of the Civil War. Operating theaters were popular teaching spaces that offered real drama while fluffing the fame and prestige of star surgeons. We know the identity of the photographer and the stars in this play: the surgeon Herbert L. Burrell of Harvard Medical School stands to the right, and a Dr. Cheever operates on the leg of this unfortunate patient. But the nurse’s identity is unknown, probably forever lost.
At the time this photograph was taken, nurses were struggling to establish decent professional standards; many were treated as servants by hospitals that expected them to work around the clock, devoting themselves body and soul for no or little pay.
Florence Nightingale, the English nursing pioneer, once declared, “Every woman is a nurse.” She meant that in private life, most women will be called upon to take care of someone—be it baby, parent or spouse—and that universality was a basis upon which to build a new profession for women. Today, in the United States and Canada, almost 90 percent of registered nurses are women.
Medical student Anna Searcy in Missouri, 1897
Anna Searcy appears with her first-year classmates; professors; and “Bones,” as he was identified in the Savitar yearbook of the University of Missouri School of Medicine. Among the bare-headed men in their starched collars, she wears a loopy zigzag of a hat and a facial expression that’s just as memorable.
The caption identified Searcy as “class secretary”; it was only recently that she was recognized as the first woman to enter the school and graduate as a doctor. She was an orphan who was sent to college by a charity fund. The young woman believed that her lucky break was the answer to years of fervent prayer. She was already in her 30s by the time she entered the medical school, which was then under a dean who supported women in medicine.
It was a demanding course: Of Searcy’s entering class of 25, mostly boys just out of high school, she was one of only 4 to graduate. She went on to work at a small-town practice and was noted for her generous support of a charitable educational fund.
Boxing promoter Florence North in New York City, 1922
The newspaper caption that originally ran with this photo highlights the shock of a woman being a boxing promoter while offering a solution to the mystery of how it works: The fighters “do their darndest in every bout, for a woman’s tongue is a thing of fury.” Florence North got a lot of attention for her move into boxing, but she didn’t stay in the business long.
North was a flapper with a gift for publicity and a nose for action. Twenty-five years old, the recent law school grad soon reappeared in newspapers across the country as the “Girl Sleuth,” promising to solve a notorious double murder in New Jersey. The victims were a married church choir member and her equally married minister.
North jumped in as a volunteer to represent the choir singer’s 16-year-old daughter, who “needed a woman’s counsel, a lawyer’s skill and a detective’s brain.” As she explained, “I have tried to give her all of these. I am first a woman, with a tender sympathy for her.”
The minister’s wife—an heiress—was the obvious suspect, but as North boldly proclaimed, the police bungled the case so badly it could never be officially solved. The sleuth was quoted daily in newspapers around the country for months before disappearing from the scene, leaving the rest of her life story another unsolved mystery.
Journalist Angela Ramos in Ate-Vitarte, Peru, 1929
Nicknamed sor presa (sister of the imprisoned), Angela Ramos is often described as the first Peruvian woman journalist. Her articles were weapons in her lifelong crusade to help the oppressed, especially the imprisoned, cheated workers and victims of harsh vagrancy laws. In her columns, she denounced prisons full of “rotting men” and called the vagrancy law “a horrible felony, since it reduces man to the condition of a slave, of a human beast, since he is forced into labor, not paid even the slightest salary, and his naked body is whipped.”
Ramos was a feminist and suffragist who sympathized with the cause of communist José Carlos Mariátegui, who is seen sitting directly behind her, wearing glasses. They were attending the annual Fiesta de la Planta in the Peruvian factory town of Vitarte (now Ate-Vitarte), where laborers had recently won an eight-hour workday.
Actress Marlene Dietrich in Europe, 1945
Marlene Dietrich was the very “symbol of glamour,” according to the headline of her 1992 obituary in the New York Times. Famous for her trademark androgyny, the actress is shown working for the U.S. Army, entertaining soldiers in Europe during World War II. A devoted anti-fascist, Dietrich was horrified by what her native Germany had turned into and dedicated herself to supporting the Allied cause, putting on more than 500 performances for the troops over the course of the war.
Anti-imperialist Amy Geraldine “Dinah” Stock in Manchester, England, circa 1945
A.G. Stock, known to most as Dinah, was a lifelong, committed anti-colonialist. As an undergraduate at Oxford University, Stock was said to be the only white student who often attended the Majlis, a society founded by South Asian students who gathered to debate such issues as gaining independence from the British Empire. At 25, she became secretary of the Centre Against Imperialism.
This image was taken at a crucial moment, right after World War II, when former British colonies around the world were pushing for radical change. Stock played the role of hostess during a joint meeting of the West African Students’ Union and the West African National Secretariat, a Pan-Africanist movement founded by Kwame Nkrumah, the future leader of Ghana (seated far right front).
Artist Hedda Sterne in New York City, 1951
Most of the painters seen here are more famous than the photo itself—Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning among them. But the only woman is not, even though it is her presence and position—“a feather in the hat,” as she put it—that make the image so arresting.
The artists pictured were protesting the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s retrograde attitudes about “advanced art,” or abstraction. The fight was front-page news; it was about a revolution in perception and the meaning of modern art. The men, who feared being dismissed as Bohemians or sellouts, were trying to look respectable, “like bankers.”
As Hedda Sterne recalled, “When we arrived, each chair had a name on it. But there was no chair for me. It wasn’t deliberate, though, and they found something for me to stand on, in the back.” Still, the men “were very furious that I was in it because they all were sufficiently macho to think that the presence of a woman took away from the seriousness of it all.”
Activist Gloria Richardson in Cambridge, Maryland, 1963
In 1963, the governor of Maryland declared martial law to quell civil rights demonstrations. Gloria Richardson, a local movement leader, was talking to men on the street when she was interrupted by a National Guardsman and his bayonet. “I wasn’t afraid,” Richardson later recalled. “I was upset. And if I was upset enough, I didn’t have time to be afraid. And besides, we had guns, too.”
Cambridge is a small town some 90 miles from Washington, D.C. The actions there came to be known as the Cambridge Movement, and national leaders got involved in negotiating a settlement to the continuing protests. Attorney General Robert Kennedy pushed for the town to vote on what was called the Treaty of Cambridge, but Richardson refused, saying, “A first-class citizen does not plead to the white power structure to give him something that the whites have no power to give or take away. Human rights are human rights, not white rights.”
Kennedy invited her to a White House meeting, where he asked her if she knew how to smile. “We were there to talk about civil rights,” Richardson later said. “That was nothing to smile about.”
Athlete Kathrine Switzer in Boston, Massachusetts, 1967
In 1967, Kathrine Switzer, a college student with a devoted running coach, sent in her $3 registration fee for the Boston Marathon, signed her name as K.V. Switzer and got an official number. She was the only woman among the 741 runners that day—unbeknownst to the race officials. But one got wise at mile four.
“I jerked my head around quickly and looked square into the most vicious face I’d ever seen,” Switzer recounted. “A big man, a huge man, with bared teeth was set to pounce, and before I could react he grabbed my shoulder and flung me back, screaming, ‘Get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers!’ Then he swiped down my front, trying to rip off my bib number, just as I leapt backward from him. He missed the numbers, but I was so surprised and frightened that I slightly wet my pants and turned to run.”
As Switzer kept running, her fear turned to anger, then elation and finally determination. She finished the race and went on to become a legend in women’s sports. She has run over 40 marathons and devoted her career to encouraging female runners, including a successful campaign to create the Olympic women’s marathon.
Publisher Katharine Graham in New York City, 1975
Katharine Graham was the first woman elected to the Associated Press’ board of directors. She sits here as the sole spot of color in a room of men.
Three years earlier, Graham became the first female CEO of a Fortune 500 company: the Washington Post, which her father, Eugene Meyer, had bought in 1933. When he quit the job of publisher in 1946 to become president of the World Bank, Meyer gave the role to his son-in-law Phil, a lawyer.
After Phil died in 1963, however, Graham became the paper’s boss. She took the company public, kept it profitable and made journalistic history in the fight against government secrecy. In 1971, she gave her paper the go-ahead to publish the Pentagon Papers, which brought to light the scope of U.S. failed policy and involvement in the Vietnam War, and then to investigate the Nixon administration’s illegal efforts to reelect the president, which ultimately brought about Richard Nixon’s forced resignation and numerous government reforms.
Excerpted from The Only Woman by Immy Humes. Published by Phaidon. Copyright © 2022 by Immy Humes. All rights reserved.