Throughout its history, editors of TIME aimed their curiosity at those who broke free of gravity. Week after week, year after year, the magazine featured an individual on the cover, often from Washington but also from Wall Street or Hollywood, from foreign palaces and humming factories, all outstanding and almost always men. The “great man theory of history,” so aligned with the American gospel of bootstraps and bravado, meant that power boiled down to biography, and to be on the cover of TIME meant that you had, literally, made big news.
I wonder how different those weekly assessments would have been had there been any women in the room where they were made. It would be many decades before TIME’s leadership included many women, 90 years before a woman ran the whole thing. Likewise in Congress and courtrooms and corner offices and ivory towers, it was largely men who were writing the first draft of history, deciding what mattered, and who mattered, and why. So now that we are marking anniversaries, it was an irresistible exercise to go back and look again, at different ways of wielding power, and the different results derived. Women were wielding soft power long before the concept was defined. On the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, TIME’s editors and collaborators revisited each year since 1920, looking for women whose reach transcended their time. Their influence in public and private life was not always positive; part of this exercise is acknowledging failures and blind spots as well as genius and vision.