Performing the feminine

You cannot separate what it means to be a ‘woman’, often used to mean a performance of acceptable femininity, from the conditions that decide what is and is not acceptable across time and space. We all do this kind of performance of ourselves, be it our gender or race or social class or national identity or culture. As we are doing it, we are always negotiating with powerful ideas about what constitutes a woman. (Tressie McMillan Cottom, Thick: And Other Essays, 2018, pp. 61–62).

These photos, found online in no-known-copyright collections, show thirteen women performing woman in their particular historical times and places. All but one of the photos are posed – composed – by the women themselves, the photographer, by-standers and others outside the frame where we cannot see them. Many of the photos have props or backgrounds against which we are meant to read the women’s performances of the feminine. Many of the women are public figures, some are unknown. Dates range from the 1880s to the 1930s.

Woman seated side saddle on a highly decorated camel.

Unidentified woman on a camel, ca. 1880, Queensland. Source: State Library of Queensland,


Four women on a beach with bicycles.

Four young women with their bicycles on the beach, Moruya, New South Wales, ca. 1900. Source: National Library of Australia,


Woman in a very long dress struggling to board a tram.

Woman getting on a tram, Brisbane, Queensland, 1910-1920. The sign on the No. 30 tram reads ‘New Farm, W’Gabba, Boggo Rd’. Source: State Library of Queensland,


Woman showing her marching costume.

Unknown woman who marched at the Chicago suffrage march, 1916. Source: Library of Congress. Part of a Chicago Tribune photo essay on the Chicago 1916 march.


Film actor Helen Twelvetrees and her 1935 Pontiac, Cinesound Studios, Sydney, 1936. Helen Twelvetrees was one of the first American women to star in an Australian film. Photographer: Sam Hood. Source: Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales:


Woman wearing a beret.

Louise Thaden, aviator. Source: Women of Flight Special Collection, San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive, WOF_00353.


Woman dressed in a fez with a cigarette.

Ella Wesner, male impersonator, ca. 1880. Photographer Napoleon Sarony. Source: George Eastman Museum, accession number 1981:4078:0016


Woman with very long hair.

A photograph of Emma Barker, the daughter of Elizabeth Baldwin Barker and niece of George Baldwin. Source: Tyrell Historical Library, AC339-016-021-001.


Ida B Wells

Investigative journalist and civil rights campaigner Ida B Wells, c 1893, Chicago, Illinois. Photographer: Mary Garrity. Sourced from Wikimedia Commons.


Miles Franklin wielding an umbrella.

Miles Franklin, author, 1901, Rozelle, Auburn St. Goulburn, NSW. Source: State Library of New South Wales:


Anna Pavlova sitting very still on a deck chair.

Anna Pavlova, ballet dancer, on board ship, Australian tour, 1929. Photographer: unknown. Source: State Library of NSW,


Gertrude Stein seated, arms crossed.

Gertrude Stein, author, 1913. Photographer: Alvin Langdon Coburn. Source: George Eastman Museum, accession no. 1979:4010:0001.


Five women in fur coats.

Scenes on the Western Front, Drivers of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry in their fur coats. Source: National Library of Scotland, Photographer: John Warwick Brooke. Reproduced under Creative Commons licence BY-NC-SA 4.0

Many of the institutional collections (from which these images are sourced) participate in the Flickr Commons project. The Commons aims to catalogue and make available public collections of images for which there are no known copyright restrictions.

Tikka Wilson

Tikka is the production manager and a founding member of Not Very Quiet.