The Woman in the Photograph brings to light the history of feminism from the late 1960s onward in a book which I found completely compelling.
Veronica Moon – Vee – is a press photographer at a time when it was a very male dominated profession. Unlike her male colleagues though, she gets sent on everyday, rather dull assignments such as photographing local Church sales. This all changes when, on one of her days off, she decides to go to Dagenham where female workers are striking for equal pay. This is her first experience of women vociferously voicing their anger at sexism and inequality. She meets Leonie, the subject of what becomes her most famous photograph, perhaps infamous is a better word, and her life is never the same. This photograph is the focus of a mystery at the heart of the story – why did it ruin Vee’s flourishing career and why did she hardly ever take another photograph?
I was young in the 70s but I can remember that feminism was almost a dirty word. It was often a really derogatory term. We’re talking about a time when women often gave up work when they married, almost always did when they had children and couldn’t even buy their own drink in some pubs! Men certainly couldn’t be feminists – they were seen as the enemy, the patriarchy. Vee was a bit conflicted about this initially as she had been brought up by her father who always encouraged and supported her.
The relationship between Leonie and Vee was fascinating. Leonie was strong, determined and outspoken. Vee was quieter but grew in confidence throughout the book both as a woman and as a photographer. She saw herself as already being part of a change to a certain extent, being a woman photographer in a sphere that had largely been a male domain.
In 2018, Leonie’s niece Erica is curating a retrospective exhibition of Vee’s photography. Through her we see how times and attitudes have. It is true that early feminists started a time of great progress for women but perhaps not enough yet. For example, Erica’s husband talks about ‘babysitting’ his own child. And he’s not alone in that attitude as I’m sure many women will recognise. Women are still considered primary caregivers for their children whether they work or not.
The main themes of this book are feminism, sexuality and equality, brought into sharp focus through the all seeing eye of the camera. Significant moments in the history of feminism are caught by Vee’s camera but it’s more than just the moment: a photo is the glimpse of a person, a life and there is always a story behind each photo.
I must mention that I thought the structure of the book was very effective. Each section begins with a part of Vee’s unpublished book for women photographers, followed by an explanation of one of the photos in the exhibition. There is some information about what was happening that year and then what was happening for Vee and Leonie, bringing it right down to the personal detail. And it is this personal detail which I so enjoyed in the book, the intense friendship between the two women and the way the bonds between them grew as the fight for equality continued. It wasn’t always an easy friendship, Leonie was often a volatile person. But the bonds between the two were strong and influential throughout their lives.
The Woman in the Photograph is an outstanding five star read. It made me grateful to all the feminists who stood up for themselves and other women and helped make the world a better, more equal place for women today. To paraphrase the book slightly, it is a must-read for anyone who cares about the past and future of feminism.
Huge thanks to Sahina Bibi at Zaffre for sending me a review copy of this book. The Woman in the Photograph will be published tomorrow (11th July) in ebook, paperback or as an audiobook. It will be available to buy or order from your usual book retailer or you can order a Kindle copy here: The Woman in the Photograph
From the back of the book
1968. Veronica Moon, a junior photographer for a local newspaper, is frustrated by her (male) colleagues’ failure to take her seriously. And then she meets Leonie on the picket line of the Ford factory at Dagenham. So begins a tumultuous, passionate and intoxicating friendship. Leonie is ahead of her time and fighting for women’s equality with everything she has. She offers Veronica an exciting, free life at the dawn of a great change.
Fifty years later, Leonie is gone, and Veronica leads a reclusive life. Her groundbreaking career was cut short by one of the most famous photographs of the twentieth century.
Now, that controversial picture hangs as the centrepiece of a new feminist exhibition curated by Leonie’s niece. Long-repressed memories of Veronica’s extraordinary life begin to stir. It’s time to break her silence, and step back into the light.
About the author
Stephanie Butland is the author of beloved bookshop tale ‘Lost For Words’ and ‘The Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae’.
Stephanie lives in Northumberland, close to the place where she grew up. She writes in a studio at the bottom of her garden, and loves being close to the sea. She’s thriving after cancer.