There is no savor
more sweet, more salt
Than to be glad to be
– Denise Levertov
I first purchased The Family of Woman at a used bookstore in Raleigh, North Carolina. It was one of the first photography books, along with The Family of Man, that would become the basis of my now extensive library, moved across the globe with me (several times), and that has inspired a lifelong love of photography, photographers, and visual storytelling.
Originally published by Jerry Mason and Ridge Press in 1979, The Family of Woman: A World-Wide Photographic Perception of Female Life and Being, was inspired by the global response to the photo exhibition The Family of Man, curated by Edward Steichen and staged by the Museum of Modern Art in 1955.
After the success of this 1955 exhibition, Ridge Press went on to publish a series of books about humanity and families that included The Family of Woman, The Family of Children, and, simply titled, Family, with texts by Margaret Mead. After years of browsing used bookstores, all of these books found their way into my collection of photography tomes and are some of my favorites to this day.
The Family of Woman documents the many roles, intricacies, and intimate moments that surround women and is also a beautiful document of its time. At 192 pages, the book includes hundreds of photos by photographers, both men and women, from around the world. The photos strive to examine the public and private worlds of women in a broad sweep. It reveals that though women were—and are—changing and adapting constantly, there is a strong universal and unchanging quality that applies to many, no matter their station in life, where they live, or what they do.
The book is a visual essay that documents women at work, as activists, as sexual beings, as mothers, in happiness, in grief, and in death. The photographs capture moments in time, across cultures, and illustrate how women identify their roles versus how their roles might be determined for them. And although there have been some controversies over the years about the age of the women depicted in the book, there is an intimacy and sensitivity to the photographs that allowed me to see the specific qualities of each woman that emerged and unfolded across the pages. This book allowed 20-year old me to see individuality, but also recognize that there something fundamental about women—and my own self as a woman. Almost 40 years after I first purchased the copy shown here, I find the photographs included complex and compelling, sometimes jolting, but eternally evocative. I see gender roles evolve and yet stay the same; I learn more about gender identity and wonder what might be reflected among the pages if a new Family of Women were published today.
As we move towards Mother’s Day and celebrating female life and mothering in all its forms, I like to look through this small catalog of the lives of women and honor all the women in my life who made me a better person, mother, grandmother, friend, sister, maker, and woman. Thank you one and all.
More on The Family of Man coming soon.
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