Photo Essay: Womanhood — What Does She Look Like? How Is She Seen?


What does she look like? How is she seen?

Text by Lauren Walsh

Photo selection by Maryam Ashrafi

March 31, 2024

For my birthday, which was in February, I was gifted a framed print, a reproduction of a painting by Danish artist Carl Wilhelm [Vilhelm] Holsøe. The image, titled “Lady in Black,” depicts a quiet moment: a woman in a black dress with a white collar reads a book. She is engrossed in the pages and takes no note of the vase of flowers to her left or of the viewer (me) who gazes upon her. The soft light, evocative of Vermeer, adds to the stillness in the frame.

The card that accompanied that birthday gift explicitly celebrated the act of reading and described the profound role books can play in transporting, educating, and empowering. In making visible a private moment of this one woman’s education (or leisure, or solace, or however she is experiencing that situation captured forever in the painting), this gift also compelled me to consider the quiet moments of women everywhere.There is so much that women do that we should celebrate. Yet, too often, the work of women is unseen, or unrecognized as vital labor that turns the gears of society, generation after generation.

And so it was that I had this on my mind as March 8th approached—International Women’s Day. I was thinking of the many roles that women occupy, both the “quiet” and the “loud.” From the unseen domestic role in one’s kitchen to demonstrations out on the streets. From happiness to grief, from sports to government to military. Globally, myriad forces continue to suppress, harm, and disenfranchise women; but this body of photographic work asks us to acknowledge, honor, and applaud the vital roles women play and to demand ever better equality.

In 1910, a delegation of women from seventeen countries attended a conference, where the idea of an International Women’s Day, to raise awareness and create impact toward equality, was proposed. It was unanimously adopted, and by 1911 the first celebration of this holiday was commemorated. Subsequent years saw the decision to observe this endeavor annually on March 8th.

Over one hundred years later, International Women’s Day continues to be celebrated around the world, and to this day, gender equity and protections remain far from achieved in various spaces worldwide:

  • Globally, one in three women experiences physical or sexual violence.
  • Around the world, the gender gap in employment has barely shifted for the last 30 years.
  • Women spend a disproportionate amount of time unpaid for their labor. Per the World Bank, “In every single country with data available,women spend more time on unpaid domestic and care work.Women’s disproportionate burden of care and household work has wide-ranging consequences. It takes away time that could be spent working for pay, developing new skills, or growing a business. As a result, women often remain stuck in informal and lower-paying jobs or remain completely outside of the labor force. Valuing unpaid care work is essential for addressing existing gender inequalities and improving labor market outcomes for women.”

We have seen shifts over time, with strides made, for instance, in rising gender parity in leadership roles in certain regions and certain industries. But the gap remains substantial. (“The last 25 years have seen a steady increase in the proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments more than doubling from about 12% in 1997 to 27% in 2022. Yet, even in high income countries women account for just over 30 percent of parliamentarians”[World Bank].) And as was said at a conference I recently attended on gender equity and foreign policy: this isn’t a “women’s issue” or a “gender issue.” This is a human issue and involves all of us.

The images here—from Mexico, Egypt, Poland, Ukraine, Gaza, Ethiopia, Canada, India, Cameroon, France, Italy, Iran, Turkey, USA, Chechnya, Germany, Democratic Republic of Congo, Greece, Japan, and even Mediterranean waters—highlight the many facets of this topic. International Women’s Day is generally seen as a call to action, to demand more and better for girls and women, and the photos here represent that advocacy and spotlight injustices and inequalities; but they also honor the strength, resilience, fortitude, patience, beauty and achievements of women around the world, without necessarily highlighting inequity or discrimination. In sum, these photographs represent a breadth of womanhood, including labor, love, empowerment, leisure, leadership, activism, hope, strength, anguish, and more.

As I reviewed these images, I asked, What does it mean to be a woman today? What does she look like? How does she impact society? How is she seen? I draw just a few photos to the fore, but all the images beg our attention, and all shape our understanding.

Michael Nigro’s photo of Eugenia Mazur, a Ukrainian mother of five who has been displaced from her homeland to Poland due to the ongoing war, shows us a woman who loves, protects, shelters, and cares for her children. She also reminds us that many women in many conflicts around the world adopt this mantel, as difficult as such circumstances can be.

Sheridan Smith’s photograph shows us that difficult situations need not be defined by war. Through her image, which likewise highlights the role of women as mothers, we learn of the U.S. shortage of baby formula during the Covid-19 pandemic. But Magi Figueroa, the mother in this portrait, is made stronger by overcoming adversity: “honestly, now I am in total awe of myself. I feel like I am capable of anything.”

In the imagery by Karene-Isabelle Jean-Baptiste, Virginie Nguyen Hoang, Maryam Majd, and Mohamed Hozyen, we see powerful women in sports settings, assured and confident, and “reclaiming the strength, power and beauty of their bodies through exercise,” as Jean-Baptiste writes.

Ezekiel Angeloni’s photograph, which depicts a woman hand-crafting a clay point, acknowledges that women can be custodians of local tradition. Angeloni explains, “This art, passed down through generations, is essential for her community’s daily life, not only for its utilitarian value but also as a rich and vibrant cultural expression.”

Many of the photographs depict scenes of protest, confirming that women continue to need to demand for equality and basic human rights protections. We see this in images by Michele Lapini, Esther Zaim, Vincent Koebel, Ludovica Anzaldi, Bastien André, Greta Argentieri, and Kelly Linsale.

Eric Bouvet’s picture of an elderly Chechen carrying rugs on her back and a framed portrait in her hand speaks to this woman’s strength, but it also foregrounds a situation of tremendous loss. She has nothing else left to take with her as she flees Russian bombardment. Likewise, Mahka Eslami’s image, a haunting counterpoint to Smith’s photo above, shows us a mother without her children, a woman who escaped a violent domestic situation only to encounter continued hardship, including the death of her baby. The image itself, while compositionally beautiful, carries the visual undertones of something painfully somber. Meanwhile, Noriko Hayashi’s compelling photo of Japanese flight attendants portrays rows of women, all wearing nearly identical black-and-white outfits and sitting in nearly identical poses with legs uncrossed and hands folded. “These young women at the ceremony all look so happy and excited,” explains Hayashi. What lies beneath is another reality: “Youth and beauty are absolute requirements. (Most of the women retire after 5 or 10 years). And Japanese flight attendants follow strict rules on appearance.” As Hayashi says, this “represents traditional Japanese ideals of womanhood” regarding a combination of beauty and gentleness, and the suppression of individual or inner identity.

I don’t know who the woman in Holsøe’s painting is. Maybe she leads a bourgeois life of leisure. But maybe she has lost a child and hides untold grief. What I do know is that a single image can never capture the spectrum of individual experience, and this photo essay moves us a bit closer to thinking broadly and globally about women today, portraying a breadth of experiences and aspects of womanhood.

I’ll end on a note of celebration, with Erica Lansner’s photo that seems to embody such vivacious joy: the colors, the smile, the flowers, the amazingly manicured fingernails! This is a portrait of Qween Jean, founder of Black Trans Liberation. It is a beautiful visualization of the fluidity of genders, the celebration of historically under-represented identities, and the appreciation for all the achievements made not only by women’s groups, but by all trans, non-binary and related efforts. Femme identities include LGBTQ+, and while International Women’s Day has come and gone, I hope that every day we can be more mindful of all women—cis, nonbinary, queer, trans, and beyond—in admiring their accomplishments and in recognizing that there is still so very much more change to be made for full acceptance and equality.1


  1. The data in this essay on gender inequality comes from: Bonfert, Anna Tabitha and Divyanshi Wadhwa, “International Women’s Day 2024: Five insightful charts on gender (in)equality around the world,” World Bank Blogs, March 8, 2024, (Last accessed March 20, 2024). ↩︎