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The Women of ‘LIFE’ Magazine

Beneath an arc of hanging laundry, a smiling woman stands at her ironing table, surrounded by a singular landscape: rows of beds to be made (thirty-five in all, the caption tells us) piles of folded clothes (250 pieces), a washing machine, a broom, piles of cans of food and bunches of carrots and other vegetables (174 pounds in all) to prepare, 400 pieces of silverware to wash. The caption reads, “A week’s work for Marjorie McWeeney is assembled by Bloomingdale’s store.” Valiantly smiling, McWeeney is dwarfed by her surroundings.

The photograph was taken by Nina Leen for a 1947 article for LIFE magazine titled “The American Woman’s Dilemma,” which profiled a selection of women, professionals or homemakers, in a fourteen-page spread. The subhead summed it up: “She wants a husband and she wants children. Should she go on working? Full time? Part time? Will housework bore her? What will she do when her children are grown?” The photographs, which include scenes of McWeeney dressed in various roles—as cook, laundress, nurse, seamstress, chauffeur, housemaid, even “glamour girl”—appear to be a humorous take on the subject from a woman who had herself chosen a full-time career over a life of domestic chores.

Russian-born Nina Leen, who immigrated to New York in 1939, was a contract photographer who joined LIFE’s staff in 1945. She is one of six women photographers featured in an exhibition, now at the New York Historical Society, on how these women’s work “contributed to LIFE’s pursuit of American identity through photojournalism.”

Magazine magnate Henry Luce launched his new magazine, LIFE, on November 23, 1936, convinced that pictures themselves could tell a story instead of simply illustrating text. It was the first successful photographic magazine in the United States, mixing politics with entertainment and popular culture. In barber shops, beauty parlors, trains, and homes, Americans thumbed through a magazine that originally cost a dime. Its weekly circulation soon far exceeded the company’s predictions, rapidly expanding from the first issue’s 380,000 copies to more than one million just four months later.

By 1939, LIFE had not only become profitable, but with a weekly circulation of 2 million—and 13.5 million just years later in 1945—it became the most widely circulated magazine in the world and would remain so until the 1960s. To its readers, LIFE could seem to be both a mirror and a lens, but always an optimistic one: a staunch anti-Communist and a Republican, Luce wanted to portray America as a united culture and a model for the world. He believed that Americans shared a basic set of values that transcended conflicts and diversity.

During the weekly’s entire thirty-six years of publication (1936–1972), however, the magazine employed very few women. Several were on staff, but most were contract photographers or freelancers. Photographer Inge Morath, who also published her work in LIFE magazine, once said: “Being one of the then rather rare women photographers… was often difficult for the simple reason that nobody felt one was serious (what does a pretty girl like you want in this profession?). Much male condescension… I certainly do not think that I got the same forceful male brotherhood support the men got.”

Each of the women highlighted in the exhibition has a different style and approach to assignments. Nina Leen and Margaret Bourke-White, for instance, could not be more different. Bourke-White, whom Luce brought into his first magazine, Fortune, in 1929 to cover business and industry, …[ ]

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