Tag Archives: Hedda Sterne

The Only Women in the Room: Who Were They?

Laurie and Debbie say:

Immy Humes, author of the new book The Only Woman, summarizes her story for Smithsonian in “These Trailblazers Were the Only Women in the Room Where It Happened.

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.

In the photo at the top of this blog, we see artist Hedda Sterne standing just above a group of painters many of whom are, as Humes puts it, “more famous than the photo itself—Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning among them.” The occasion was a protest against the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s unwillingness to support abstract, “advanced” art, but the advanced painters, according to Sterne, “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.”

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Here we have Anna Searcy, the first woman to study at the University of Missouri School of Medicine. The caption names her “class secretary” but we now know that she graduated with her M.D.  She was an orphan whose college was paid for by a charity fund, and entered the medical program in her 30s.

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After the end of World War II, A.G. Stock, known to most as Dinah, is shown here acting as hostess to a  Pan-Africanist gathering. Stock, a lifelong committed anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist is described as the only white student who went to meetings of anti-colonialist South Asian students. Kwame Nkrumah, who founded the Pan-Africanist movement went on to be president of Ghana, is in the first seated row, at the far right.

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Angela Ramos, feminist, suffragist, is often described as the first Peruvian woman journalist. She used her articles to fight for the oppressed, particularly workers cheated by their bosses, victims of rigid vagrancy regulations, and people in prison. In this photo, we also see communist José Carlos Mariátegui, directly behind her, wearing glasses. Ramos was a champion of Mariátegui. Here, they are in a Peruvian factory town where the workers had recently won an eight-hour workday. 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. Ramos’ nickname was sor presa (sister of the imprisoned).

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Here, Gloria Richardson, a local movement leader, is talking to men on the street in 1963, shortly after the governor of Maryland declared martial law, with the express intent of shutting down civil rights demonstrations. Then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy wanted Richardson and her comrades to vote on a “treaty” with their small Maryland town. Richardson’s reply: “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.” She later shut down Kennedy at the White House when he asked her “if she knew how to smile.”

In these photos, and the others in the Smithsonian article, Humes shows us both the history of women in men’s spaces, and also the ways that a lone woman in a photograph — or at a historic event — can be more than a token, or an ornament. These women are key movers and shakers in the actions of their time.

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