Imogen Cunningham and Women / by M Durquet

Imogen Cunningham
Coffee Gallery, 1960 by Imogen
Portrait of a Woman, 1939, by Imogen
What is on my mind today: the state of women in 2015. It's a vast topic, but I will make it local and personal. I've been reminded that even, and maybe especially, in Silicon Valley, which has some of the best opportunities for creative people, women do not compete on equal terms with the men who run and fund tech companies. See, for example, the January 2015 article by Nina Burleigh in Newsweek: What Silicon Valley thinks of Women, which describes the sexism there as "sordid and systemic."

In this same Valley, I teach at one of the top high schools in the state, a place where there is much talk about reducing the "achievement gap"(when Latino, Black and other minority students are not performing as well as their Asian and White peers). I don't remember the last time I heard anyone on campus talk about reducing the achievement gap between male and female students in certain subjects- particularly advanced Math and Science classes, where we don't even have statistics but know that these classes are filled mostly with young men. This topic seems to have fallen off the radar in a lot of schools, while universities still lament the underrepresentation of female students and professors in these subjects. We are talking about 50 % of the population, which also includes those in the "traditional" achievement gap. Why is this not equally as, or even more alarming to those of us who think that in 2015, the world is accessible to our daughters, sisters, mothers? 

The subject of how we see and value women came up for me recently in an unexpected way, through the name of a great photographer: Imogen Cunningham. Recently I met with a man who is well known in San Francisco cultural circles and a keen observer/lover of women in his work and life. He had known Imogen. "Oh, she used to live down the street from me," he said, "and she kept asking to take my picture, but I kept telling her no. I didn't know who she was- she was just a little old lady. Later, I used to confuse her with Dorothea Lange." So I asked him, "If she had been young and beautiful, would you have agreed to have your picture taken?" "Oh, of course," he said, "but not because I'd want her to take my picture."

In the US, we fall behind many other countries, and not just industrialized countries, when it comes to the representation of women in many areas of public life. We are doing immeasurable damage when we dismiss old women because they look old, and young women because they are women. When we look at women through the veil of youth, beauty, availability, potential for personal or financial gain, we strip away the possibility of fully knowing them and deny their potential to express their ideas and talents. That is what happened to Imogen all those times she asked to take that man's picture.