Making Herstory: How TIME is Foregrounding Women’s Excellence

In response to the historic gender exclusivity of their ‘Man of the Year’ issues, published for 72 years, TIME Magazine recently launched a project, recreating 100 covers, each celebrating a ‘Woman of the Year’ from 1920 to 2019. The project aims to turn the spotlight to the achievements of women which were historically overshadowed by those of their male counterparts. From renowned fashion icon Coco Chanel to mathematical revolutionary Emmy Noether, from the champion of Indian independence Amrit Kaur to sporting legend Serena Williams, TIME’s project truly presents an incredible compilation of female champions.

The ‘100 Women of the Year Project’ laments the historic systematic side-lining of women, with male achievements eclipsing the media space. An article published in 1936 in The Daily Telegraph truly epitomises how women’s voices were historically decentred. The article recounts a conference of 450 women as the BBC launch a women’s talk. According to the article, a Monica Whateley wished to hear “talks on other subjects besides matters concerning the home” including “the position of women under the League of Nations, and about the work women were doing in local government and in Parliament in other countries”. This article signifies the historic underrepresentation of women’s achievements and socio-political contributions in the mainstream media; Whateley demands that the media documents the careers and successes of women, rather than smothering the female audience with household issues. The Daily Telegraph article signifies the contemporary media’s attempt to both divert attention away from women’s achievements and to direct the female audience towards their dictated position in the home, a process which the coming movement of second-wave feminism would seek to counter-act.

In light of TIME’s project, it is pertinent to look to the ways in which historic recording systems minimised, or at times ridiculed, the contributions of women. To look to just one example, according to the British Film Institute, the parallel rise of cinematography and the women’s suffrage movement in the early 20th century perpetuated the typecast of suffragettes as militant and corporal, as epitomised in a short film titled “Milling the Militants”. The presentation of female activists as “manly” and threatening was not novel to the British media scene; in the late 19th century Punch, a weekly comic magazine, sought to continually dismiss and belittle the empowering ‘New Woman’ figures. In 1894 Punch ridiculed the movement: “This nagging New Woman can never be quiet!” as she “holds out a strong hand to the Child-man” (May 26, 1894). For both “Milling the Militants” and Punch the non-conforming woman is satirised and presented as a ruthless figure seeking to emasculate and humiliate men.

To turn to women in science, when Elizabeth Blackwell became the first female doctor in America in 1849, a British magazine responded with a satirical poem. The poem encouraged young women to follow the example of Blackwell in order that they may more adequately treat “a brother ill,/ A husband, or a lover” within the household (Punch, 1849). Similarly, a fascinating article published in The Times in 1991 confronts the contemporary male-domination in science, in both public and private spheres. The author points to the example of Rosalind Francis who was “denied her place in history” next to her male colleagues in the revolutionary “unravelling [of] the structure of the DNA molecule”. The author credits her historic invisibility to her social absence from men’s clubs and common rooms. This poignant article continues to describe the experience of Jocelyn Bell Burnell who worked under Tony Hewish in an astrophysics study. As Bell Burnell operated the telescope she discovered “pulsars” which revolutionised the field of astrophysics. Nevertheless, the Nobel Prize for this discovery was awarded to Tony Hewish in 1974 (The Times, Dec. 7 1991). This tragic example blatantly demonstrates the patriarchal overshadowing of a revolutionary female scientist and the discriminatory writing of history.

TIME’s project succeeds in not only recognising the achievements of white, privileged women but draws attention to the successes of women of colour and LGBTQ champions, individuals who faced enormous additional barriers in gaining their deserved recognition. TIME’s 1967 cover celebrates Zenzile Miriam Makeba, a black singer shunned by the South African government in the wake of apartheid tensions. Contemporary American media described Makeba as fuelled by “the fevered panting of warriors” and offering an “African experience” with her “emotional heat, rhythmic intensity and sinuous, sensuous melodic projection” (New York Times, April 1963). Whilst the New York Times article exoticized and fetishized Makeba, TIME’s retrospective cover highlights that Makeba must be remembered not solely for her music but her political involvement and lived experiences of the brutality of apartheid. For the 1969 edition, TIME commemorates Marsha. P Johnson, a black drag queen and LGBTQ icon. With contemporary attitudes labelling drag queens as  “emotionally disturbed” whilst drag entertainment was seen to “illustrate homosexuality in acceptable forms rather than as an illness” (New York Times, July 28, 1968), the media scene was dominated by societal prejudices. Faced with multiple angles of oppression, positive recognition in the contemporary media would have been near impossible for Johnson. In its re-animation of voices that were contemporarily side-lined, TIME’s project rejects the historic systems of oppression in presenting an intersectional celebration of femme heroes.

TIME’s re-imagined covers do an incredible job in reflecting on the historic minimisation of the achievements of women in their own institutions and on a wider scale. Through an intersectional feminist framework, TIME have confronted and sought to amend the dismissal of female success. Nevertheless, retrospection must always be coupled with proactivity. In other words, across the media as a whole, the act of looking back to historic failings must run parallel to an investigation, a confrontation, and an eradication of the gender bias which still operates in today’s media. To name just one example of the gender bias within our contemporary media, UNESCO reports that, outside of the Olympic period, women’s sport receives solely 4% of all sports media coverage whilst 40% of global sporting participants are women. Moreover, UNESCO maintain that media reportage of sportswomen often centres on “appearance, age or family life” whilst their male equivalents are described as “powerful, independent, dominating”. Fundamentally, the media risks perpetuating stereotypes and pandering to archaic gender roles. Clearly this article has only glimpsed at this issue within British or American media and has therefore not unpacked the historic and current gender bias on a global scale. World-wide media outlets must challenge the gender bias within their organisations, through both a re-examination of their past, as fantastically demonstrated by TIME, and a termination of any present biases in order that we do not repeat historic minimisation and distortion of women’s achievements in the mainstream media.

Hattie Hansford

Featured Image Source: Pexels

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