Depicting a Century of Change for Women

Where now? Where next? These are the questions that come to mind in viewing the National Geographic Society’s “WOMEN: A CENTURY OF CHANGE” exhibit.

The display is divided into six themes, thought it also includes the beautiful and haunting image of a green-eyed “Afghan girl” that embodies all of them. Joy is in Amy Toensing’s photo of two women participating in India’s traditional Holi festival and joy is also in David Bowman’s photo of the U.S synchronized swimming team practice in Indianapolis. 

Jodi Cobb captures beauty in Miss Trinidad adjusting her costume in the 1998 Miss Universe Contest while a recently married Afghani girl embracing her younger sister in Wakhan embodies love in Matthieu Paley’s photograph.

Schoolgirls in Ghana carrying chairs to the ceremony for the opening of the Maranatha Maternity Clinic display wisdom in Randy Olson’s photo. Strength is conveyed in Lynn Johnson’s photo of women traversing the desert plains of Kenya to bring water to their families.

Hope abounds in Ami Vitale’s photo on the steps of the West Virginia State Capitol—where a woman is getting her head shaved, symbolic of mountaintop removal and the many people who are sick. 

“Through the Lens” panels interspersed throughout the exhibit provide behind-the-scenes anecdotes by the photographers, revealing the intangible connection made between the photographer and the subject and the lasting impression this moment left on them. 

ERIKA LARSEN, 2019 Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, photographed by Erika Larsen in Ellicot City, Maryland, January 30, 2019

An additional display of “Portraits of Power” is made up of 24 portraits and biographies of an iconic group of activists, luminaries, politicians and celebrities interviewed for the Women: A Century of Change companion text by National Geographic magazine’s first female editor-in-chief, Susan Goldberg. Trailblazing women like Oprah Winfrey, gun control activist Emma González, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, 2019 Women’s World Cup champion Alex Morgan, #MeToo movement founder Tarana Burke, philanthropist Melinda Gates, Dr. Jane Goodall and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern are among the featured faces.

WOMEN: A CENTURY OF CHANGE” will be on display at the National Geographic Museum through spring of 2020 in celebration of the centennial anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment allowing women the right to vote. Its opening today coincides with the release of the companion text Women: The National Geographic Image Collection, containing 450 archival photographs. The one-hour companion documentary, “Women of Impact: Changing the World,” will also air on National Geographic channel later this week, on October 26. In November, National Geographic magazine will also launch a corresponding yearlong, enterprise-wide project exploring women’s lives around the globe, with print and digital platforms to celebrate women through compelling photography, in-depth reporting and essays.

But the National Geographic’s physical collection of more than 100 illuminating images of the lives of women from more than 30 countries reveal that in diversity of differences and distances, there is a sharing of human experience.


Sheila Wickouski is an art and culture writer.