From Smurfette to Kamala Harris, the legacy of the “only woman” is as long and varied as the course of human history that has sought to marginalize female participation in institutions — or at least restrict it to the bare minimum. A new book by Immy Humes, The Only Woman (Phaidon 2022), catalogs 100 of these only women, spotted variously in group photos across a range of male-dominated environments.
If you pick up the book expecting a Rolodex of extraordinary (and often unsung) female achievement, you will find it. If you’d like an illustrated lesson in the breadth and scope of gender discrimination across basically every aspect of public society, you will not be disappointed. If you have simply exhausted the entire “Where’s Waldo” canon and are looking for a photorealistic, lady-based alternative, there is something here for you, as well. In each (mostly) black-and-white image, there is one and only one woman. Sometimes she is central and obvious, other times she is marginal and surprising. Always, it is a delight to see her.
“The one that first really struck me showed radical filmmaker Shirley Clarke celebrating her first feature in 1961,” writes Humes, in her introduction. “To me, it spoke volumes about this person often described as ‘the only woman filmmaker’ of her time. Why her and only her? What does her onliness mean? I got a little fixated.”
The format of the book is deeply satisfying, offering an array of women scientists, artists, writers, medical students, politicians, and even criminals, all pictured among their fellows. Once spotted, the next impulse is to wonder at her story, and on every facing spread, Humes has helpfully provided any biographical information available on her subjects — or at least some broader context in cases where specifics are not known (as in the case of “Unknown Cowgirl” and “Unknown Shipyard Worker”). Some groups are small, nearly familial — like Dorothy Parker and her Vicious Circle of New York intelligentsia. Other times, the group shot is so large, it’s difficult to find the woman among them (helpfully, Alice Chalifoux, is the lone woman and the harpist for the symphony orchestra of Cleveland, so one can look for the harp.) Who is the lone woman lost in the sea of hundreds of otherwise male members of the American Society of Sugar Beet Technologists (ASSBT), 1946? She is biochemist Elizabeth Roboz Einstein, and she walked so that the contemporary ASSBT— now led by plant scientist Anna Murphy and boasting 20% female membership as of 2021 — could run.
There is a poignance to these characters, who have followed their destinies into a place devoid of sisterhood. Anyone who has ever attempted to breach a space where they are not welcome, where there is no one who looks like them, knows the particular pains of keeping their own counsel and their goals in the crosshairs. Men may find camaraderie and friendly rivalry as they make their way in the world, but women who make a go of it must often go alone. Even now, the phenomenon of “pulling the ladder up behind you” plagues the legacy of those lone women who have managed to gain entrée to rarified male spaces.
But the surprising part of The Only Woman is not realizing the many ways women have been kept out, but appreciating the many ways one managed, impossibly, here and there, to get in. If she could do it, then we can, too. So what you really have when you pick up this book is a catalog of role models — a kind of portable sisterhood for any woman attempting to go it alone.
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