‘Women of Our Time’ at the Portrait Gallery

A new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery showcases the beauty of women in the twentieth century

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Cameras love women. There’s something in the curve of a woman’s lip, or the way a strand of hair falls across her brow. Whether a woman intends to portray herself as beautiful or not, the female image is a compelling work of art. At the National Portrait Gallery, a new exhibition, Women of Our Time: Twentieth-Century Photographs, 90 portraits serve as exquisite examples.

But the show is also a kind of historic theater, its cast of characters includes some of the country’s most intriguing and storied females. The pictures in the museum's galleries provide the visitor with several dozen lifetimes of trial and tribulation, gains and setbacks, joys and sorrows.

Take for example, Jeannette Rankin (1880-1973). Her image (above) is the very picture of elegance and proper etiquette. Her white-gloved hands clasped in just the right way, hang below her waist. Her complexion is clear and fair. A smart looking feathered bonnet enhances the white collared blouse at her throat. Yet her traditional dress belies her radical spirit.

Rankin managed to get elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1917, fully three years before women even had the right to vote. And in short order, Rankin made a name for herself, casting a pacifist, and unpopular, vote against U. S. involvement in World War I. She did it again in December 1941, following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Then there's the Asian actress Anna May Wong (1905- 1961), who fought desperately, and unsuccessfully, to rise beyond the roles that Hollywood executives stereotypically cast for her—scheming slaves or concubines.

Or look at two early champions of children's and women's health issues, Virginia Apgar (1909-1974) and Margaret Sanger (1879-1966). The Apgar test is still the standard method to monitor a newborn’s transition from birth to life. And Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, saved the lives of hundreds who had been sickened or weakened by multiple pregnancies.

The list, a century-long journey through a who’s who in women’s history continues: Mary Pickford, Gertrude Stein, Clare Boothe Luce, Lillian Gish, Willa Cather, Margaret Bourke-White, Jessye Norman, Bella Abzug, Wendy Wasserstein, Laurie Anderson, Susan Faludi, Gloria Steinem. . . .

We've provided a small photo gallery featuring some of these amazing women.

One noteworthy observation—smiles are rare. The camera tells no lies. For the doyennes and divas of our times, their dignity and beauty is predicated on grim-faced determination.

(Photograph of Jeannette Rankin, courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Margaret Sterling Brooke)

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