How we got here

Gay Rights MarchAn exhibition of photographs at Schlesinger Library highlights an important era of the feminist movement and adds context for eras such as our own. 

By Isa Flores-Jones '19

You almost don’t notice the White House for the sea of women. Behind the protestors and left of the enormous Washington Monument, the tiny spire is needle-like above the white thimble of the capital building. The Capitol Building is a blot against an even greyer sky. This photo is black and white. At the foreground, the faces and bodies of protestors come into focus. Noses and mouths and smiles appear out of the masses, as do the signs. One banner reads: “NORTH CAROLINA LESBIANS.” It obscures a second banner that reads simply: “GAYS.”

Gay Rights March in Washington
GAY RIGHTS MARCH WITH WASHINGTON MONUMENT IN BACKGROUND, OCTOBER 14, 1979 Photo: Bettye Lane, courtesy of Schlesinger Library

This picture was not taken January 21, 2017.

It’s part of Catching the Wave: Photographs of the Women’s Movement, a collection of photographs from the1960s and 1980s on exhibition through March 17 at the Schlesinger Library in Radcliffe Quad. The exhibition documents activism, highlighting the work of photographers Bettye Lane and Freda Leinwand, and featuring the work of Catherine Allport, Mima Cataldo, Diana Mara Henry and Dorothea Jacobson-Wenzel. The show depicts key moments in women’s activism such as the Woman’s Strike for Equality in 1970 and the prolonged campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment.

Lane and Leinwald, who spent years photographing the movement, don’t censor their subjects. Their cameras give equal time to the upturned smiles of lesbian activists and determined grimaces of anti-ERA protestors. In one unsettling shot, a cigarette-smoking policeman occupies the main focus and behind him stands a woman with a devotional gaze and a sign that reads: “Men, Our Masters.”

Shirley Chisolm
It’s clear that Catching the Wave doesn't lift only one boat. Everyone’s boat is rising or tipping here, and the result is a comprehensive archive of female empowerment during nearly 25 years of activism.

Included in those moments are photographs of Shirley Chisholm, who in 1972 became the first Democratic candidate for presidency. Nearly 40 years before Hillary Clinton’s run for the White House, Chisholm is captured speaking to crowds of eager change-makers.          

Although the show is a compelling way to encounter these images, digitization has made them accessible not only to scholars but the far-flung public as well. Research librarian Diana Carey, who has worked on the digitization process, said the exhibition has relevance in light of the recent election. “We often don’t realize how we got here,” she said, “but these images present a real history. It gives me hope.”