As we’ve told women’s stories, they’ve changed the world

This month, National Geographic launches a year-long project on women’s impact in the world.

By Susan Goldberg
Published 28 Oct 2019, 11:50 GMT
This article is part of National Geographic's Women of Impact special – celebrating the women around the world who fearlessly push boundaries. The November issue of National Geographic is the first issue in which all written and photographic content has been created by women contributors.

The first scene in the history of National Geographic doesn’t have a single woman in it. It occurred on January 13, 1888, when 33 men of science and letters gathered in a wood-panelled club in Washington, D.C., and voted the National Geographic Society into existence. Our archive contains no photographs of the event, as none were made—which seems ironic, since if National Geographic is known for anything, it’s for creating an indelible visual record of life on Earth.

Over time, as the National Geographic Image Collection grew—to more than 64 million physical and digital assets today—another record unwittingly was formed: a global chronicle of the lives of women, up to the present day. These pictures, taken largely over the past century, are snapshots of their times, showing how women were perceived, how they were treated, how much power they had—or didn’t have. The images illuminate what used to be called, quaintly, “a woman’s place”—a concept that’s changing before our eyes.

You’ll see many images from the archive in this special issue on women—our first in which all the contributing writers, photographers, and artists are female. With this issue, we kick off a year of coverage across our print, digital, and broadcast platforms exploring the lives of women and the massive changes under way for girls and women around the globe.

People at this 1913 Washington, D.C., parade were demanding voting rights for U.S. women.
Photograph by Clinedinst Studio

You can see the shift begin with one grainy picture from the archive, shown above. It captures crowds surrounding a Washington, D.C., parade of women seeking the right to vote—which they got when the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in August 1920. Our coverage through 2020 will celebrate the centenary of that victory. And of course, that was just a start.

This issue documents how women around the world are rising up to demand civil, personal, and professional rights. It’s happening through the #MeToo and equal-pay movements rippling through workplaces from Hollywood to soccer fields. It’s happening among women governing in Rwanda, insisting on safety in India, and being finally acknowledged as groundbreaking pioneers in their fields.

In addition, throughout this issue you’ll find interviews and portraits of accomplished women. They are scientists and self-described social justice warriors; attorneys, philanthropists, writers, athletes; a doctor fresh from a war zone, and a seasoned war correspondent. Four of the women are ranked in the top 30 in Forbes magazine’s 2018 list of powerful women.

We put the same questions to all these impressive, insightful women, and we’re delighted to share excerpts from our conversations. Every one of them espoused this belief: that women who follow their convictions can overcome almost anything. “Never take no for an answer,” said broadcaster Christiane Amanpour. Or as American soccer star Alex Morgan put it: “Don’t be discouraged in your journey.”

“Journey” is the right word for reflecting on the story of women. I was a newspaper editor in 1992 when my publication and many others proclaimed it the Year of the Woman. Why then? That was the year we saw the largest number of women voted into the U.S. House in a single election—24, of 435 total members—and the greatest number of women ever in the Senate: six members out of 100. As naive as it seems now, this was hailed as a harbinger of real change.

So when there’s yet another assertion that women’s status is rising, skepticism might be forgiven. But this time, to me, it feels different. It is different. I’m the 10th editor of National Geographic since its founding and the first woman to hold this job—an appointment that once would have been unthinkable. Wherever you look, women are reaching higher positions: in business, the sciences, the law. And they’re being seen and heard on their own terms, as speed-of-light communications and social media allow them to make an end run around patriarchal systems that once stifled them.

Today the numbers really do tell a story of change. The sheer volume of elected women has vastly increased in developed and developing nations around the globe. You can see a snapshot of that change in this issue’s exclusive maps and graphics.

Throughout this yearlong project, we’ll share heartening examples of how women have gained rights, protections, and opportunities during the past century. We’re bound to also come across cases where women have experienced the opposite: rights denied, opportunities withheld, vulnerabilities exploited, contributions ignored.

In more than 130 years of covering the cultures of the world, we’ve witnessed how inequality can become invisibility, until the oppressed hardly can be seen or heard at all. At this anniversary, we aim to bring more women’s lives into the light—and more women’s voices into the conversation.

Thank you for reading National Geographic.

This story is part of our November 2019 special issue of National Geographic magazine, “Women: A Century of Change.” Read more stories here.

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