Where Are the Women of the Year?

Why men have dominated the cover of TIME's historic franchise

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Man of the Year began in 1927 as a way for TIME’s editors to belatedly congratulate Charles Lindbergh on his historic trans-Atlantic flight. He’d completed it in May of that year, but the editors neglected to put him on the cover. Every December since, TIME has attempted to capture the events of the year by giving it a namesake: the person or persons who for good or for ill most affected the news and our lives. Almost every American president since the magazine’s founding has been Man of the Year, with three exceptions—Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover and Gerald Ford—while Franklin Roosevelt clinched the title three times. International Man of the Year alumni range from Mahatma Gandhi to Winston Churchill to Ayatollah Khomeini. Hitler was Man of the Year once, and Stalin twice. Eventually the “Man” part started to sound a little out of tune, but that happened more recently than you might think. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was the first choice to sport the title Person of the Year, in 1999.

The late shift to Person reminds us how few times the Man of the Year has been a Woman. The first was Wallis Simpson, whose love affair with the Prince of Wales caused him to abdicate the throne in 1936. If she wasn’t exactly a terrific role model, she was, as the TIME story put it, “the most-talked-about, written-about, headlined and interest-compelling person in the world.” And she beat out some stiff competition to claim TIME’s title that year, including Franklin Roosevelt (who won his second election in a landslide), Benito Mussolini and Chiang Kai-shek. Chiang didn’t have to wait long: he and his charismatic wife, Soong May-ling were 1937’s Man and Woman of the Year. In 1952 the title went to Elizabeth II, marking the year she took the British crown. In 1975, the editors named American Women the women of the year—all of us, it would appear, but with special attention to luminaries like Betty Ford, Jill Conway and Billie Jean King. Corazon Aquino, the newly elected president of the Philippines, was Woman of the Year in 1986, and 2002 saw a trio of women—Cynthia Cooper, Coleen Rowley and Sherron Watkins, aka the Whistleblowers—cited for the roles they played in exposing corporate corruption and governmental oversight. In 2005, TIME chose three philanthropists as Persons of the Year: Bono, Bill Gates and Melinda Gates.

It seems like too few women, over the course of nearly nine decades. You can count them on two hands. But it’s a fair reminder that for much of TIME’s history, women seldom held the kinds of positions of power that would set them up for Man of the Year status. Wallis Simpson and Madame Chiang Kai-shek both wielded great influence through their marriages, while Elizabeth’s role was hereditary. We can be glad to live in an era when making “American Women” the Person of the Year would feel patronizing, but we still haven’t seen a female President, nor (as Sheryl Sandberg spent much of this year pointing out) are our corporate ranks exactly overflowing with female CEOs—two job categories that often feed the Person of the Year machine. As long as those imbalances exist in the real world, it would be wishful thinking to try to balance them on an annual cover of a magazine. At the same time, the trends are moving in the right direction. Ben Bernanke was Person of the Year in 2009 for helping to stabilize the economy during the financial crisis; one hopes that another financial crisis will not plague his successor, Janet Yellen, but if it did, she’d make a great candidate. Big efforts are underway to get more girls into engineering and sciences, which might help pave the way for a female Person of the Year in physics or chemistry or medicine, where women have been underrepresented (see 1960’s U.S. Scientists, a group of 15 men including Linus Pauling; or 1996’s Man of the Year, AIDS researcher David Ho).

The flip side of that observation—that men have tended to hold positions of power—is that franchises like Person of the Year have tended to privilege roles traditionally held by men. Presidents and prime ministers fill the POY roster much more often than activists (Malala Yousafzai) or entertainers (Miley Cyrus) or writers (J.K. Rowling). Precedent is a mighty force, but the nature of influence is ever changing, and arguably we as editors could decide to shift Person of the Year away from institutionalized power toward cultural and social power, which can be a more egalitarian playing field. To be fair, we tried that with You in 2006, and You didn’t seem to like it very much. (We had better luck with The Protester in 2011.) But imagine the past nine decades of Person of the Year populated not just by Presidents but also by influential athletes and artists, musicians and philosophers. It would make for an interesting alternate history, and perhaps a richer and more diverse one.

As with any titles or awards, though, the pool of those who’ve been overlooked by Person of the Year is large and contains multitudes. There are plenty of influential men whose names don’t appear on the list. Fidel Castro has never been Person of the Year. Neither has Muhammad Ali or Billy Graham. We missed Steve Jobs, Margaret Thatcher, Mao Zedong, Michael Jackson, Princess Diana and Mother Theresa. We’ll doubtless miss more. You’ll doubtless remind us. Ultimately, Person of the Year isn’t about inclusion—how could it be, when it’s just one person? Person of the Year is about singularity, for better or worse. But it’ll be good for the franchise—not to mention the world—when we start to see that Person default to a woman.