Written By: Bill Syken
LIFE asked Caroline Gutman, a freelance photographer who has shot for the New York Times and the Washington Post, to choose her favorite photos from the LIFE archives that speak to the changing role of women. Gutman’s work, which you see on her website, often focusses on issues of gender and economic equality. “As a woman and a photographer, my work is inherently linked to women’s changing roles over the last century, and it is only possible because of generations of women who paved the way,” Gutman says.
Her selections are a diverse group that show women in many different settings—at home, on the farm, at the race track and even in the pro wrestling arena. Here Ms. Gutman explains what attracted her to each photo:
Field Workers 1941
In the months after Axis forces attacked the Soviet Union during World War II, women in Russia took to the fields to help feed their comrades while men fought on the frontlines. This well-framed photo goes beyond time and place as it shows captures women of all ages with rakes held high and harvested hay at their feet.
Surviving the Dust Bowl 1942
This painterly depiction of a Dust Bowl-era home shows a mother and son finding comfort in each other’s company. She is likely darning a piece of clothing at a time when money was scarce, exemplifying how it often fell to women to hold the home together and make do with whatever they had.
Mildred Burke, Wresting Champion 1947
While today women have a prominent role in professional wrestling, for most of its history female competitors were rare. But Mildred Burke was an early pioneer. She held the National Wrestling Alliance’s World Women’s Champion title for nearly 20 years. Not only does this photo show Burke proudly wearing her welterweight championship belt, it also shows how comfortable she is in showing her feminine strength.
Motorcycle Meet 1947
Although less than 15% of motorcyclists in the U.S. today are women, female bikers have a long history. The founding of Motor Maids chapters in the 1930s gave women the chance to share their enthusiasm for motorcycles and bond with other female riders. This mother-daughter duo look happy and at home during a motorcycle meet in Laconia, N.H.
Casting Ballots 1952
At the time this photo was taken in 1952 in Martha’s Vineyard, women had only had the right to vote for thirty years, after the passage of the 19th Amendment. This image captures not just a new right but a changing tide. Since 1964 more women than men have voted in every presidential election.
Taking to the Air 1958
In the years after World War II women enjoyed new career options. This photo captures the pride of flight attendants-in-training, and also the beauty standards expected of women in the commercial flight industry.
Betting-Window Fashion 1958
This visually striking depiction of betting at a racetrack highlights not just the fashion of the day but a changing attitudes about women’s pastimes. This fashion shoot portrays the women with exuberance, while the drably dressed man fades into the background.
March for Women’s Rights by John Olson, 1970
The push to pass the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was a watershed moment for the women’s rights in the U.S, even though it was never ratified. The solidarity and resolve of the protestors in this photo walking arm-in-arm captures growing momentum of the feminist movement.