Immy Humes champions trailblazing women in her latest book, The Only Woman

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Amy Geraldine “Dinah” Stock, Anti-Imperialist, Manchester, England, UK, c.1945. Picture credit: Working Class Movement Library

Presenting 100 images from her vast, found archive, Humes’ book also boldly attests to the stark reality of gender inequality over the decades

Upon seeing a photograph of American independent filmmaker Shirley Clarke wholly surrounded by male colleagues, Immy Humes had two polar reactions. One was of rapturous cheer: “You go, girl!” But—just as viscerally—she thought, guardedly: “Watch out, Shirley!” This perfectly encapsulates the double-edged reaction, of jubilation and unease, that this image—and 99 other such photographs—evokes in Humes’s compact yet authoritative book: The Only Woman, published by Phaidon. Humes has assembled a vast archive of group photos unambiguously depicting gender disparity, spanning from the 19th-century until as recently as two years ago. Speaking by phone from Brooklyn, Humes muses that the Only Women gathered here are unequivocal pioneers, yet by virtue of this taxonomy, “somehow they have all this sameness, too.” 

Emmeline Pankhurst, Suff ragette, London, England, UK, 1914. Picture credit:Getty Images

“One of the things I actually understood in my bones, doing this project, was how the process of integration by sex and gender is exceedingly slow and piecemeal… it isn’t like a great wave of women entering public life. There’s the first woman—and it’ll be another four decades before the second one.”

 

The photograph of Clarke within the visibly male-saturated milieu set off what Humes, an award-winning documentary filmmaker and television producer, describes as “this itch.” The photo also reminded Humes of a famous shot from 1951 of Abstract Expressionists, featuring some 15 male artists and painter Hedda Sterne, an outlier rising from the recesses. “I started looking, looking, looking: memory bells going off. The lineup of the Bauhaus masters, a really great picture by Man Ray of the Surrealists… Then of course music: so many bands fronted by the only woman, since time immemorial. In the Cleveland symphony, the only woman is a harpist, even though the harp is the heaviest instrument!” 

 

She collected these images for years. Humes found examples across countries, centuries and professions—be it a neurobiologist in Italy (Rita Levi-Montalcini, 1986) or a chess champion in Czechoslovakia (Vera Mechik, 1929) or a race car driver in New Jersey (Janet Guthrie, 1976). All the women were completely muffled by the volume of men in the image: sometimes obscured to the point of invisibility. There are the famous names—Jane Campion, Dorothy Parker, Colette, Marie Curie—and many unknown silhouettes: an unnamed secretary, an anonymous shipyard worker, an uncredited student. 

 

“One of the things I understood doing this project, was how the process of integration by sex and gender is exceedingly slow and piecemeal… it isn’t like a great wave of women entering public life,” Humes notes. “There’s the first woman—and it’ll be another four decades before the second one.” The reality of gender inequality hits hard when visualised this tangibly. The archival images act as evidence; they are how Humes investigates: “Is there anywhere where this doesn’t apply?” The answer is, no, there is not. 

Hedda Sterne, Artist, New York, New York, USA, 1951. Picture credit: Nina Leen / The LIFE Picture Collection
Shirley Clarke, Filmmaker, New York, New York, USA, c. 1962. Picture credit:Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, Shirley Clarke Papers

In some cases, the sense of gender exceptionalism functioned as an asset, a queenly moment rather than a sense of being overpowered. The charismatic jazz musician Bessie Smith has a grand time standing out against a background of interchangeable-looking men. “I can understand that too—that sense of feeling iconic—revelling in being the only one. There were women who were really digging it,” Humes acknowledges. (In one of her own introductory anecdotes, she recounts having a birthday party where she gleefully sat at the head of the table, presiding over 12 male friends.) Designer Pam Hogg, wrapped in latex, provides another winning depiction: 11 naked male bodies function as her decorous entourage. “Just a great flip,” Humes notes admiringly of the power dynamic.

 

Often, however, the gender disparity highlights the underlying—or overt—menace women face when outnumbered by men. The final photograph, of activist Ieshia Evans, is as boldly courageous as it is terrifyingly vulnerable. It acts a contemporary companion piece to a legacy of women in protest: like the suffragette Emeline Pankhurst getting arrested in London in 1914—when the police quite literally lifted her off the ground. Or, a 1963 image of civil rights leader Gloria Richardson spurning riot police as they thrust a bayonet towards her.

Ieshia Evans, Revolutionary, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA, 2016. Picturecredit: Reuters / Jonathan Bachman

“I put myself in her place every time,” Humes says of each Only Woman figure she references. “There’s a kind of empathy. Immediately, I couldn’t help but think, How is she feeling?” As a further act of sisterhood, Humes tried to find out who “she” was in every possible instance, doing research and interviews to complete the visuals, and to connect the dots with new generations. For the Old Dominion Dental Society, a Black dentists association in Virginia, the Only Woman in 1964 was Dr. Clarissa Wimbush. Today, the society still exists, and is run by Dr. Laurie Wilson, who—when Humes spoke to her—felt an incredibly strong kinship with her predecessor, despite never having met her.

 

“The fun was finding examples from the most contradictory walks of life, like the communists and the capitalists,” Humes says. But the amusement is equally alarming, as it confirms the pervasiveness of this wild discrepancy between male and female representatives, regardless of lifestyles or values or context. As John Berger put it: “To be born a woman has been to be born… into the keeping of men.” Here’s hoping the Only Woman trope will soon only hold sway as an absurdist chapter of the past, because she will be kept by no one.

The Only Woman by Immy Humes is published by Phaidon, £19.95. It is available now

Sarah Moroz

Sarah Moroz is a Franco-American journalist and translator based in Paris. Her words have been published in the International New York Times, the Guardian, Vogue, NYLON, and others.