Whether they are women who refused to give up their seat on a bus one stormy afternoon in Alabama and sparked a civil rights revolution, such as Rosa Parks, or women that created a standard of etiquette, such as Emily Post, many women stand as pieces of the great puzzle of 20th century America in the National Portrait Gallery’s “Women of Our Time” exhibit. The exhibition is a compilation of over 50 twentieth-century photographs of women who have contributed to the history of the United States.
The exhibit has confusing placement, which makes its message murky. The exhibit is placed after the “Ballyhoo! Posters as Portraiture” exhibit, where the viewer will walk down a long path of photographs placed along walls and in the center along the main hallway, as well as small rooms placed on both sides of this main hallway. As a viewer, you are unable to tell if the women placed in the main hallway serve a certain importance in comparison to the women in the rooms, or if the curator of the exhibit hoped to organize the photographs based on specific decades.
However, the latter does not seem to be the case, because the main hallway has a variety of women from different decades: Marian Anderson, a songstress who gained popularity in the U.S. during the 1930s; Sylvia Plath, a troubled writer whose notoriety grew after her tragic suicide in 1963; and Amelia Earhart, the female pilot whose treacherous trip across the Atlantic Ocean resulted in her mysterious disappearance in 1937. The main hallway features three major women who set the precedent for women to come, but questions still remain as to whether these women are more important than the women found in the rooms on the left and right of the central hallway.
Women’s portraits found in these bordering rooms include one of Isadora Duncan, a famed innovator of contemporary dance in the 1900s, and one of Katharine Hepburn, the famed actress, taken in 1933, in the right bordering rooms. On the left bordering rooms, an unconventional portrait of Marilyn Monroe - the troubled starlet that no man nor woman could keep their eyes off of - shows her on stage isolated, even though male singers surround her. Another portrait found in the left bordering rooms is singer Janis Joplin performing on stage. Joplin went against the odds to rise to fame in the male dominated field of rock ‘n’ roll.
Although the structure of this exhibit makes one question what is the purpose of separating the portraits of the women into the main hallway and the two bordering rooms, there seems to be a common ground that exists between the portraits. Each woman, in her own right, overcame adversity and became an innovative figure and role model in her profession. Yes, some of the women couldn’t stomach the pressure of their lives, some died tragically and other women still have much to conquer in their lives, but all the photographs show each woman in a distinguished, unique light that truly illustrates their core, making the content of this exhibit exist as the greatest of our time.