Protesters, pop stars and pioneers: 38 images that changed the way we see women (for better and for worse)

<span>Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes, New York, 1971, by Dan Wynn.</span><span>Photograph: © Dan Wynn Archive and Farmani Group, Co Ltd</span>
Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes, New York, 1971, by Dan Wynn.Photograph: © Dan Wynn Archive and Farmani Group, Co Ltd

Vauxhall Bridge, from the Pissing Women series, 1995

By Sophy Rickett

The idea for the Pissing Women series came to artist Sophy Rickett at Glastonbury festival in 1994. “For some reason, I was struck by the disparity in how men and women piss,” she later recalled. “Men seem so carefree; they do it out in the open, while for women, the work of conditioning means it must be performed discreetly and always in private.” And so, in a boisterous act of rebellion, Rickett and her friends dressed up in their skirt suits and heels, and posed for photographs while urinating on the streets of London. Here, Rickett can be seen on Vauxhall Bridge, the headquarters of MI6 looming in the background. Recently, the series was published in its entirety for the first time. GS

The Women’s March, 2017

By Brian Allen

On 21 January 2017, the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, the streets of the US capital were transformed into a “sea of pink”. Half a million protesters had gathered for the Women’s March on Washington, many wearing knitted pink “pussyhats” in reference to a remark made by Trump about groping women. The hats became a symbol of solidarity for women’s rights under threat around the globe – although they were criticised by some for a perceived lack of inclusivity and for being overly cute.

Later that year, the battle against sexism had another watershed moment when the Harvey Weinstein revelations sparked a reckoning about the prevalence of sexual assault in Hollywood. The #MeToo movement quickly spread to other industries. Though Weinstein’s 2020 rape conviction was overturned last month, #MeToo founder Tarana Burke has vowed the fight will go on: “Ten years ago, we could not get a man like Weinstein into a courtroom.” GS

Gail Porter on the Houses of Parliament, 1999

By Michael Walter

During the golden era of lads’ mags, the nude cover shoot was pretty much a rite of passage for young female stars. But when TV presenter Gail Porter posed naked for a 1999 issue of FHM, the 28-year-old did not know the magazine planned to project the image 60ft high on the Houses of Parliament. The publicity stunt, organised to promote a poll to decide “the world’s 100 sexiest women”, was reported to have helped sell more than a million copies of the magazine.

Porter found out about it in the news the next day. She has since gone on record about being traumatised by the incident. “Some people were kind and some people were unkind,” she told one interviewer. “It made me stay in bed for quite a long time.” Looking back, she has also reflected on how exploitative men’s magazines were in general: “You think this is fine, and it’s not until you get older that you think, ‘We got taken advantage of quite a lot.’” Particularly egregious is that Porter says she was never paid a penny for any of her naked shoots. GS

Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes, New York, 1971

By Dan Wynn

The lifelong friendship between Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes began in the late 1960s. Then a young reporter, Steinem was working on a story about the West 80th Street Day Care Center founded by Pitman Hughes. The two women bonded over their shared belief in feminism as well as racial and social justice. For five years, they conducted a speaking tour across America, drumming up support for women’s issues.

Taken during that tour and first published in the October 1971 issue of Esquire, this image of the pair standing side by side with fists raised in a Black Power salute encapsulated their vision of a sisterhood that could unite women across boundaries of race and class. GS

England v Germany final, Euros 2022

By Sarah Stier

The Lionesses made history in July 2022 with their 2-1 victory against Germany in the Euros. Not only was it their first win at an international tournament, it was the first time since 1966 that an England senior football team had won a major championship. The match became the most-watched women’s football game ever screened in Britain, with 17.4 million tuning in.

Related: ‘We could feel the gravity of it. It was electrifying’: 50 photographs that reshaped sport

Captured by Sarah Stier, this impromptu celebration erupted at a press conference later. “I heard this rumbling. The team burst in, singing and dancing,” Stier told the Guardian in 2022. “In professional sports, so much is choreographed by media handlers. Witnessing spontaneous events like this reminds you why we are drawn to them.”

The Lionesses called on the government to ensure equal access to sport in schools, pointing out that, at that time, only 63% of girls could play football in PE. The government committed to it, and there are now twice as many female teams in England. Stier’s photograph is an ecstatic reminder that, in the end, it was women who brought it home. MW

Windblown Jackie, 1971

By Ron Galella

“I am an absolute prisoner in my apartment,” Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis said of her ordeal with paparazzo Ron Galella. “I live in dread fear that the moment I step on to the sidewalk, that man will assault me again.”

Galella, who died in 2022, is credited with popularising the stalk-and-ambush style of tabloid photography of the 90s and 00s that disproportionately targeted women. He photographed stars from Madonna and Elvis to Andy Warhol and Marlon Brando (who punched him), but Onassis was, he said, his “obsession”. One morning in 1971, Galella followed the former first lady from her Manhattan apartment in a taxi. The driver blew his horn. As she turned, wind blowing through her hair, Galella snatched his shot. “I don’t think she knew it was me,” he later told Time magazine. “That’s why she smiled a little.” Windblown Jackie became his most celebrated photograph, “my Mona Lisa”. Onassis despised the constant attention and took him to court; the photographer was issued with a restraining order. MW

Spice Girls, 1997

By JMEnternational

This shot of the Spice Girls performing on stage at the 1997 Brit awards captures the band at the height of their cultural influence. They were a key part of Cool Britannia, of course, but they were also global ambassadors for “girl power” – which in Mel C’s words meant “being able to do things just as well as, or even better than, the boys, and being what we want to be” – a quote with shades of their hit song Wannabe.

It may not have been the most radical brand of feminism, but it reached far and wide. Beyoncé once told Victoria Beckham that the Spice Girls not only inspired her own musical career – they “made me proud to be a girl”. GS

The Mother as a Creator No 11: Long-distance Relationship, 2020

By Annie Wang

Annie Wang took the first monochromatic self-portrait in her Mother as a Creator series in 2001, the day before she was due to give birth. The next year, the Taiwanese artist posed with her infant son, the original photo on the wall behind. Each year (with some breaks when her teenage son decided he didn’t want to appear on camera) the project continues, an ever-deepening “time tunnel”. This image has many earlier portraits visible – including the first, of a pregnant Wang, which can be seen in the open magazine.

For Wang, the idea was to capture motherhood as a complex and creative act – in contrast to the self-sacrificial stereotype. “Motherhood is a long- term process,” Wang has written about the project. “This complexity cannot be expressed solely by the generally accepted saccharine image of mother and child.” GS

Selfish book cover, 2015

By Kim Kardashian

“This book is a candid tribute to all of my fans,” writes Kim Kardashian in the opening pages of Selfish, published in 2015 and spanning three decades of self-documentation by the “queen of selfies”. Beginning with her first ever snap from 1984, the book features cameos by famous friends and nude images of her that were leaked in 2014. Out of the shadows of the blonde, blue-eyed, size zero beauty standard of the 2000s, Kardashian ushered in the ethnically ambiguous “Instagram face” – defined by critic Jia Tolentino as one with “catlike eyes and long, cartoonish lashes; small, neat nose and full, lush lips” – and the “slim thick” body, with narrow waist and large butt.

There has been an explosion in cosmetic treatments to get them: surgeons refer to the “Kardashian effect” to describe the popularity of procedures such as the Brazilian butt lift, while “tweakments” are becoming the norm. MW

Margaret Sanger Has Her Mouth Covered, 1929

Photographer unknown

In 1916, when Margaret Sanger opened America’s first birth control clinic in Brooklyn, distributing contraception was illegal. Nine days after it opened, police raided the clinic; Sanger was sentenced to a month in jail.

This photograph was taken at Boston’s Ford Hall Forum, the oldest free public lecture series in the US. Sanger – who had been banned from speaking in public – stepped up to the stage with a gag around her mouth. She stood in silent protest as Harvard professor Arthur M Schlesinger read her prepared speech: “The authorities of Boston may gag me … but they cannot gag the truth.”

Sanger paved the way for greater reproductive rights, but her legacy is controversial. She was associated with eugenics and supported selective breeding. In 2020, Planned Parenthood, which she founded, removed her name from its Manhattan Health Center, in “a necessary, overdue step to reckon with our legacy”. MW

The Dinner Party, 1974-1979

By Judy Chicago

Now on permanent view at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party is a landmark work of early feminist art. Created over five years, with the help of 400 volunteers, the installation consists of a triangular banqueting table that represents 1,038 women in history – 39 appear in place settings and another 999 names are inscribed in the heritage floor on which the table rests.

The table’s elaborate decoration includes vulva-shaped ceramic plates and embroidered runners. “My goal was to teach the unknown history of women in western civilisation to a broad audience,” Chicago says.

Some critics dismissed the project, finding its emphasis on female sexual anatomy vulgar or essentialist (or both), but it was an instant popular hit. It broke attendance records at the San Francisco museum where it was debuted, and more than a million people saw it during a subsequent tour of 16 venues around the world. Some of the named dinner guests were well-known, among them Virginia Woolf and warrior queen Boudicca. But, Chicago notes, “People do not realise how many of the 1,038 women represented have been ‘rediscovered’ since the piece premiered.” She cites Hildegarde of Bingen, the medieval visionary, and composer Ethel Smyth. “Their work, like that of so many great women before and after, was ignored, underestimated and almost erased.” GS

Queer Dyke Cruising, Hampstead Heath 1992

By Del LaGrace Volcano

“I was a practising pansexual before that term was even coined,” says Del LaGrace Volcano, an artist who has challenged the binaries of sexuality and gender for more than 50 years. The Californian was born in 1957 with an intersex variation, and spent their formative years in San Francisco in the mid-70s. They gained a scholarship to the San Francisco Art Institute before moving to London in the early 80s, where they continued to make work exploring conventional gender binaries.

This photograph is from the 1989 series Queer Dyke Cruising, which remained unseen until Tate Britain curator Linsey Young spotted it and included it in the museum’s Women in Revolt! exhibition last year. Volcano had invited their lesbian friends to a famous cruising spot for cisgender gay men on Hampstead Heath and asked them to perform sexual acts for the camera. “It was very real for everybody. They’re performing as themselves, because I was able to create a space where they felt safe, seen, and could explore certain things that maybe they haven’t given themselves permission to explore before.”

Volcano, who now lives in Sweden and has two children, has paved a way for a whole generation of queer political artists. Their 1991 photobook Love Bites, which captured underground lesbian clubbing scenes in London and San Francisco, was banned by customs in the US and censored in Canada. In the UK, it was shunned by the press, politicians and feminists, sparking debates on the difference between erotic art and pornography – some gay bookshops refused to sell it. The book has become a queer classic. Since then, Volcano has documented underground BDSM nightlife, the rise of “drag kings” and a range of subjects on gender and sexuality. MW

Fatima Whitbread, Rome, 1987

By George Herringshaw

Abandoned, raised in care and abused as a child, British athlete Fatima Whitbread defied the odds to become a record-breaking world javelin champion. The two-time Olympic medallist reportedly ate 8,000 calories a day to bulk up. Her muscular physique was criticised in the media; decades on, controversy over her body caused Twitter storms when she was on I’m a Celebrity in 2011. “I didn’t care,” she told the Guardian in 2023. “I loved what I did and that’s what it took for me to succeed.” MW

Leila Khaled, 1969

Photographer unknown

This photo of Leila Khaled, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, was taken just after her hijack of a plane in 1969. Hair wrapped in a keffiyeh, she holds an AK-47, wearing a ring (just out of shot) made from the pin of a hand grenade. “I made it from the first grenade I ever used in training,” she told the Guardian in 2001. “I just wrapped it around a bullet.”

Much like the famous “guerrilla fighter” portrait of Che Guevara, this image became a popular symbol of political resistance, appearing in newspapers and magazines, as well as in a mural in the West Bank. The image became so widespread that Khaled would go on to have six cosmetic operations to avoid being recognised.

It was one of the first high-profile examples of women’s participation in violent resistance – newspapers at the time referred to her as a “girl terrorist”. “In the beginning, all women had to prove that we could be equal to men in armed struggle,” Khaled said, before concluding, “I no longer think it’s necessary to prove ourselves as women by imitating men.” MW

Somnyama IV, Oslo, 2015

By Zanele Muholi

“I picked up the camera because there were no images of us that spoke to me at the time when I needed them the most,” Zanele Muholi told the British Journal of Photography in 2021. The non-binary visual artist first took up photography after struggling to find images of Black lesbians. Muholi – whose retrospective at Tate Modern in London will open later this year – has since become renowned for documenting the lives of South Africa’s Black lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer and intersex individuals. Collaboration is central to the artist’s photography – they refer to their subjects as “participants”, meaning that they actively contribute to the making of the image.

In this series, Somnyama Ngonyama (Hail the Dark Lioness), Muholi made 365 self-portraits to explore “what it means to be Black, 365 days a year”, as well as what they call “the concept of ‘MaID’ (‘My Identity’) or, read differently, ‘maid’, the quotidian and demeaning name given to all subservient Black women in South Africa”. Rich with symbolism that nods to their own personal story and broader political histories, the series confronts the politics of race and representation within the art world and the wider world. MW

Frida with Blue Satin Blouse, New York, 1939

By Nickolas Muray

Few artists are as instantly recognisable as Frida Kahlo, who died 70 years ago. The Mexican artist was painstaking in the construction of her own image, whether through vividly painted self-portraits or elaborately posed photographs showing her unflinching gaze, swept-back dark hair and unibrow. She also placed her personal experiences at the forefront of her work, from her sexual relationships with both women and men (including Nickolas Muray, who took this portrait) to her struggles with infertility and disability. Today the face of Frida Kahlo has itself become a feminist icon: a symbol of unapologetic self-expression and freedom from gendered expectations. GS

Scenes from a marriage, 1982

By Donna Ferrato

Donna Ferrato was first exposed to the “dark side of family life” in the early 80s, while working on a story about swingers for Japanese Playboy. She photographed the “wild sex parties” of wealthy Swedish couple Elisabeth and Bengt, and often stayed overnight in their home. Over time, she saw him becoming more violent and controlling. “One night, I heard her screaming. I ran into the bathroom and saw him pulling his hand back to hit her. I took a picture because I thought it would make him stop, and to get proof.”

It was hard to publish the images back then, Ferrato says: “People didn’t want to see this dark side.”

Her 1991 book Living With the Enemy forced them to look – including congressmen. She met Joe Biden on a train in 1997, she tells me, and he said the book had a profound effect on him. Ultimately it helped bring about the passing of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act. MW

Miss America pageant protest, 1968

By William Sauro

In September 1968, feminists from all over the US gathered outside the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City to protest about the event. They tossed “instruments of female torture” – bras, high heels and copies of Playboy – into a “freedom trash can”. This fuelled one of the greatest myths of the women’s liberation movement: the idea of the “bra-burning feminist”. It would have made for a compelling photograph – but it never happened. The myth was kindled before the event, when the New York Post ran a report headlined “Bra-Burners Plan Miss America Protest”.

“We never burned bras and never intended to,” organiser Robin Morgan has said. “It’s a myth we’ve been trying to squelch for years.” MW

Free Angela Davis Now! poster, 1971

Photographer unknown

In the late 1960s, the scholar and activist Angela Davis joined the Black Panthers and the Che-Lumumba Club – an all-Black branch of the Communist party – making her a state target. In October 1970, after she was arrested on suspicion of involvement in an armed courtroom takeover at the trial of her friend, Black radical George Jackson, she went into hiding, becoming one of the FBI’s most wanted criminals. When she was detained two months later, media coverage fuelled outrage. The Rolling Stones, John Lennon and Yoko Ono wrote songs about her, and “Free Angela!” became a battle cry.

After 18 months, in June 1972, Davis was acquitted of all charges.

She went on to be influential in linking the women’s movement to other political struggles, as seen in her groundbreaking 1981 book Women, Race and Class. MW

American Girl in Italy, Florence, 1951

By Ruth Orkin

American photographer Ruth Orkin was in Italy when she met fellow solo traveller Ninalee Craig. They bonded and Orkin asked Craig to pose for images around the city. “Ruth said, ‘Hey, I could probably make a bit of money if we horse around and show what it’s like to be a woman alone,’” Craig later recalled.

This image of Craig strolling between leering men was published in a Cosmopolitan photo essay titled When You Travel Alone … “Ogling the ladies is a popular, harmless and flattering pastime you’ll run into in many foreign countries,” read the caption.

Craig, who died in 2018, always insisted the image is “not a symbol of harassment” but of a woman having a wonderful time!” GS

The Dagenham machinists’ strike, 1968

By Bob Aylott

In June 1968, 187 machinists walked out of the Ford factory in Dagenham. Their job was to make car seat covers, something classed as a grade B, unskilled job, for which they got 85% of the rate paid to men. The machinists pointed out that they needed to pass a sewing test for the role and demanded equal pay and for their work to be reclassified as grade C.

In 2013, one of the women, Gwen Davis, told the Guardian that people accused them of striking for cash they didn’t need. “Our wages weren’t pin money,” Davis said. “They were to help with the cost of living, to pay your mortgage and bills.”

The strike caused such disruption that, three weeks in, Barbara Castle, secretary of state for employment and productivity, intervened, facilitating negotiations between the union, Ford management and the government. The women went back to work with a pay rise that put them on 92% of the male rate.

This landmark strike led to the creation of the 1970 Equal Pay Act and played a crucial role in achieving greater gender equality in the UK. After a second strike, in 1984, the machinists’ jobs were finally made grade C. MW

All This and Overtime, Too, 1942

Photographer unknown

In 1942, a photographer snapped 20-year-old war worker Naomi Parker Fraley leaning over an industrial machine at the Naval Air Station in Alameda, California. The image was published in the local press and the following year graphic artist J Howard Miller made his Rosie the Riveter “We Can Do It!” posters, featuring a flexing female factory worker in a blue jumpsuit and red headscarf.

Though not confirmed by Miller, this photograph was believed to have inspired the character of Rosie. (For decades, it was widely thought to be of a different woman entirely, until 2016 when Fraley publicly identified herself.) Miller’s poster was made to boost the recruitment of women to defence industries during the second world war – more than 6 million took wartime jobs in the US – and it has since become an instantly recognisable symbol of female power. MW

Death at Epsom, 1913

By Arthur Barrett

On 4 June 1913, Emily Wilding Davison ran on to the racetrack at the Epsom Derby and was trampled by the king’s horse. The 40-year-old suffragette suffered severe injuries and died in hospital four days later. Media coverage of the “Thrilling incidents at Epsom” included a front-page photograph of Davison and the horse lying on the ground.

The public was divided over whether her actions had been deliberate, but a 2013 analysis of the footage showed Davison was attempting to attach a scarf to the horse, and police reported finding two flags on her body, as well as a return train ticket from Epsom, suggesting that she had no intention of dying that day.

Her death roused public sympathy for the suffragette movement. Dressed in its colours of white and purple, 5,000 supporters marched in the funeral procession through London, while an estimated 50,000 more lined the two-mile route from Buckingham Palace Road to St George’s church in Bloomsbury. MW

First woman in Boston Marathon, 1967

Photographer unknown

It is strange to think that a woman running a marathon was once so shocking that a race official would try to drag her off the course. But that’s what happened in 1967 when Kathrine Switzer became the first woman officially registered to compete in the Boston Marathon, having signed up as KV Switzer without disclosing her gender. The previous year, another woman, Bobbi Gibb, had been told by race officials that women “are not physiologically capable of running a marathon” – but she gatecrashed and finished it anyway.

“The perceptions of women,” Switzer said in a later interview, “were that you were going to get big legs, grow hair on your chest, your uterus was going to fall out.” It wasn’t until 1972 that women were officially allowed to enter, thanks to campaigning sparked by Switzer’s treatment.

In 2017, at the age of 70, she returned to the Boston Marathon with the same bib number. Since her first race, the perception of female runners has changed drastically – this year almost as many women as men applied to run the London Marathon. GS

Baker’s Elephant, 1925

Photographer unknown

Josephine Baker was an impressive multi-hyphenate: a burlesque dancer, a civil rights activist and, at one stage, a spy. Born into poverty in 1906 in Missouri, US, Baker moved to France at 19 to be a dancer. She quickly became a jazz age sensation, achieving star billing at the Folies Bergère and notoriety for dancing in a G-string decorated with bananas.

Related: 40 outrageous photos that changed fashion, from teenage Kate Moss to Twiggy in a mini and Lady Gaga’s meat dress

Using fame as a cover, Baker spied for the French Resistance against the Nazis, and was later awarded a French Resistance medal and the Croix de Guerre. In the 1950s and 60s, she played an active role in the civil rights movement and began to adopt, forming a family of 12 children that she referred to as “the rainbow tribe”.

She died aged 68 in 1975, but is remembered as a trailblazer for Black entertainers and as a symbol of resistance against racism and oppression; her work, Vogue recently wrote, “radically redefined notions of race and gender through style and performance in a way that continues to echo throughout fashion and music today, from Prada to Beyoncé”. MW

Demi Moore, 1991

By Annie Leibovitz

When the August 1991 issue of Vanity Fair hit newsstands, with its naked, heavily pregnant cover star, a number of distributors requested that it be wrapped in the brown paper used for pornographic magazines. There were plenty of critics – one reader called it “a desecration” and “repulsive” – but the controversy only helped to drive up sales. It also spawned a new genre of maternity photography that remains equally popular among celebrities and regular mothers-to-be, who can book their own “boudoir shoots”. This image had itself not been intended for the cover – it was a bonus shot taken for Moore and her family – but when Leibovitz saw it, she thought it would make a strong feminist statement. “I think it was an important moment,” Moore has said. “To have the courage to change the way we looked at women when they were pregnant. Before that, they had us in Peter Pan collars.” GS

The first Page 3 model, 1970

Photographer unknown

On 17 November 1970, the Sun newspaper printed a photograph of Stephanie Rahn sitting in a field, one breast fully visible, on page 3 of its daily paper. Other tabloids followed suit, hoping to boost their own sales (the Sun’s nearly doubled in a year). The tradition continued for almost 50 years, until the No More Page 3 campaign argued in 2012 that it perpetuated sexism and was damaging to women and girls’ body image. In January 2015 the Sun replaced topless women with clothed glamour models; in April 2019 the Daily Star featured its last Page 3 model. MW

Protest outside a US abortion clinic, 1971

Photographer unknown

By the late 60s, a handful of US states had begun to decriminalise abortion in exceptional cases, but the procedure was still mostly illegal, with up to 1.2m underground terminations a year. Here, a woman protests at the closure of a clinic in Wisconsin that had been operating in violation of state law – placards like hers were a common sight as protests (and counter-protests) spread across America.

Related: ‘It felt like history itself’ – 48 protest photographs that changed the world

That same year, a case was brought to the US Supreme Court by “Jane Roe”, the pseudonym of a 25-year-old pregnant woman from Texas challenging the state’s abortion laws. Two years later the court ruled in favour of Roe, a landmark decision legalising abortion nationwide.

Nearly half a century on, in 2022, the court overturned Roe v Wade, in a shocking move writer Rebecca Solnit described as “an attempt to make women unequal, unfree, second-class citizens”. The battle continues, not only in the US but in Poland, Italy, Argentina, Morocco and many more countries.

Myra Hindley police mug shot, 1965

Photographer unknown

In 1966, for the first time in recorded British history, a woman was sent to jail for life. Myra Hindley and her partner, Ian Brady, had kidnapped, tortured and murdered five children. Bodies of the victims were found at Saddleworth Moor in Manchester. The “Moors murders” inspired a media frenzy. The public couldn’t fathom how a woman could be capable of such a gruesome crime. For many, her widely reprinted mugshot was the face of evil itself.

Hindley maintained her innocence until 1986 when she confessed and was taken to the moor to help search for bodies. The murders were referenced in a song by the Smiths and in 1995 artist Marcus Harvey used a composite of children’s handprints to reproduce the notorious image in one of the most controversial works of art of the 90s. MW

Untitled (Woman and Daughter with Makeup), 1990

By Carrie Mae Weems

When Carrie Mae Weems first photographed herself at her kitchen table in 1989, she had no idea of the impact such images would have. “I knew what it meant for me, but I didn’t know what it would mean historically,” she told W Magazine in 2016. Over two years, Weems captured staged scenes of herself, as well as friends, neighbours and strangers, at the table, reflecting themes of family, love and power. The result is a series of 20 photographs, interweaving narratives acted out across a single frame and illuminated by a single light above Weems’ table.

The kitchen table is a site that has historically belonged to women, yet it is rarely depicted as somewhere of importance. Weems positions it as a place where key human experiences unfold: “The site of the battle around the family, the battle around monogamy, the battle around polygamy, the battle between the sexes,” the artist, now 71, has said.

The series was pivotal for Weems as an artist – she went on to achieve international success – and paved the way for a new generation to explore race, representation and domesticity through photography. MW

Christine Jorgensen, New York, 1954

Photographer unknown

Actor, singer and activist Christine Jorgensen was the first widely known American to undergo gender reassignment surgery. Born in 1926 in New York City, Jorgensen served as a military clerical worker in the second world war. After undergoing surgery in Denmark in 1952, she became an instant celebrity, the Daily News reporting “Ex GI becomes blonde beauty”.

Jorgensen used this platform to advocate for transgender people. Her story was a watershed moment: while doctors across America reported being “besieged” with requests for “the Danish cure”, she received tens of thousands of letters. “The letters that say, ‘Your story is my story; please help,’” she wrote, “make me willing to bare the secrets of my confused youth in the hope that they will bring courage, as well as understanding, to others.” MW

Human Erosion in California (Migrant Mother), 1936

By Dorothea Lange

In the mid-1930s, the photographer Dorothea Lange was working for the Resettlement Administration, a New Deal-era agency created by Franklin D Roosevelt to combat rural poverty. While walking through a pea picker’s camp, Lange spotted a young mother with seven children. “I approached as if drawn by a magnet,” Lange told Popular Photography magazine in 1960. The 32-year-old woman told Lange she had sold her car tyres to buy food, and was living off frozen vegetables and birds the children had caught. “There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.”

Lange’s images appeared in the San Francisco News in March 1936. They showed the extreme hardship workers faced, and soon after the government sent 20,000lb of food to the camp. By that time, the mother and her family had moved on. Who she was remained unknown until 1978, when Florence Owens Thompson wrote to the Modesto Bee newspaper, identifying herself.

In a later story, she said, “I wish she hadn’t taken my picture … I can’t get a penny out of it. She didn’t ask my name. She said she wouldn’t sell the pictures. She said she’d send me a copy. She never did.”

The revelation that Owens was a descendant of two Cherokees led to speculation about whether the photograph would have resonated so widely if it had been known its subjects were Native American. Even with its contested backstory, the image is a testament to how photography can shape public opinion and influence policy. MW

Smoking Amy, 1930

By Eugene Robert Richee

Here Marlene Dietrich is pictured in white tie and a top hat for her Oscar-nominated role as cabaret singer Amy Jolly in the 1930 film Morocco – a performance that included one of cinema’s first on-screen lesbian kisses. “I’m sincere in my preference for men’s clothes,” the German-born film star once said. “I do not wear them to be sensational. I think I am much more alluring in these clothes.” Yet her androgynous style was subversive in its time: in 1933, it is said a police chief in Paris threatened to have her arrested if she wore men’s trousers within his jurisdiction. With typical insouciance, Dietrich responded by arriving in the city in a trouser suit. The “Dietrich silhouette”, as it came to be known, expanded the possibilities of women’s fashion for generations to come. GS

Untitled (Witness ’79 series), 1979

By Hengameh Golestan

On 7 March 1979, weeks after the conclusion of the Iranian revolution, supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini announced that veiling would be mandatory for women at work. The next day, International Women’s Day, tens of thousands of people protested in Tehran. Pioneering photographer Hengameh Golestan joined them.

“At first everybody was in good spirits,” she says. “The feeling was we’d win.” But the papers wouldn’t publish her images: “No one wanted to admit that such a significant number of women had taken to the streets.” Despite six days of protests, mandatory veiling was soon in force. Since then, Iranian women have continued to speak out against the nation’s politics. GS

Eva Perón, Buenos Aires, 1951

By Dom Slike

Former Argentine first lady Eva Perón went from being an impoverished actor to one of the most powerful women in the world. Born María Eva Duarte in 1919, she moved to Buenos Aires at 15 and 11 years later married Juan Perón, who was elected president the following year. As first lady, Perón championed social justice and gender equality: she funded schools and orphanages, promoted paid holidays for workers and was instrumental in giving women the right to vote. She also shared her husband’s admiration for Mussolini’s Italy, Hitler’s Germany and Franco’s Spain, and was said to enable his most repressive policies.

Her popularity earned her the nickname “Evita” (“Little Eva”), and when she died at 33 in 1952 after a long struggle with cervical cancer, millions attended her funeral. Her life inspired a blockbuster musical – she was played by Madonna in the 1996 film – and her image is still widespread across Argentina, on murals, merchandise and placards at protests. In 2019 the country’s largest labour union called on the Catholic church to declare her a saint. MW

Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs arm wrestling, 1973

Photographer unknown

“She doesn’t stand a chance,” stated tennis champion Bobby Riggs in September 1973, 10 days before he faced women’s world number one Billie Jean King in the historic “battle of the sexes” match. Riggs, 55, had said women’s tennis “stinks” and “women belong in the bedroom and kitchen, in that order”. He challenged King, 29, to a $100,000 winner-takes-all game. Here, they engage in a playful pre-match arm wrestle. Later, she would defeat him in straight sets in front of a TV audience of 90 million.

King took home the cash, but the real prize was what she achieved for women’s sport. “I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win,” she said. “To beat a 55-year-old guy was no thrill for me. The thrill was exposing a lot of new people to tennis.” MW

Wonderbra’s Hello Boys advert, 1994

By Ellen von Unwerth

As an ad campaign, the 1994 Wonderbra “Hello boys” poster – once voted the most iconic billboard of all time – was certainly successful. Even now, Ellen von Unwerth’s black and white photograph of Eva Herzigova in a push-up bra remains instantly recognisable. And everyone remembers the tagline, with its cheeky double entendre. But the ad has also come in for criticism for its unabashed pandering to the male gaze (it was apparently so distracting to men that it caused traffic accidents). Looking back, the ad could be said to sum up the contradictions of 90s lad culture – blatant misogyny delivered with ironic humour.

In 2018, Wonderbra launched an updated version of the campaign with a new, somewhat more progressive, tagline: “Hello me!” GS

Untitled Film Still #21, 1978

By Cindy Sherman

The malleability of female identity is exposed in Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills, her breakthrough series of self-portraits taken between 1977 and 1980. In each photograph, the American artist dressed up as a different character, taking her inspiration from the stereotypical roles assigned to women in films (from Hollywood noirs to European arthouse) in the 1950s and 60s: the femme fatale, the desperate housewife, the jilted lover and so on. Here, she is a smartly attired career girl in the big city. While the meticulously staged photographs look like promotional stills, in fact none of them are real – a comment on the artificiality of the roles constructed for women in our culture. GS

• These 38 images are a snapshot of women’s lives – which other landmark pictures come to mind for you? Email