This article has been corrected.
No American woman has won Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” by herself in more than eight decades. Over the course of the 91 years that the magazine has proffered the title, in fact, only one has done so: Wallis Simpson, who earned the title in 1936 thanks to her relationship with King Edward VIII, a relationship which eventually led to his giving up his throne.
The next time an American woman was named “Person of the Year” (or, at that time, “Man of the Year”) to the exclusion of any man was in 1975, when the winner of the title was … “American Women.” (Before that, American women were included in the winning group twice, first when “The Inheritor” won in 1966 — apparently a reference to baby boomers — and then in 1969 when “Middle Americans” did.)
On Wednesday, the magazine announced its 2017 winner, as you’ve probably heard: “The Silence Breakers,” a reference to the women (and a few men) who spoke out about sexual harassment, precipitating a remarkable moment of public accountability for people — almost all men — in positions of power in the country.
Power is at the heart of the issue, as we’ve seen while watching the revelations unfold. NBC’s Matt Lauer, movie producer Harvey Weinstein and prominent elected officials all held positions of authority that were leveraged to silence those whom they’d allegedly abused. The New York Times’s exhaustive assessment of how Weinstein kept his actions out of the public eye is, in part, an overview of the power he wielded. Economic power. Corporate power. It’s a journal of how to twist the dials and yank the levers of authority to facilitate shocking and apparently criminal behavior.
That the accusations that have emerged are so pervasive in our culture is a reflection of how pervasive pockets of power are, as well. The Weinstein revelations cracked the dam on any number of situations that had been kept in the dark, but the conditions for that outpouring were established in other ways. The power of the Internet created a sense of community among those who’d been similarly victimized. The election of President Trump despite the accusations against him, as Time’s essay about the winning group notes, inspired a political movement among women on top of which harassment revelations overlapped neatly.
Time’s “Person of the Year” winners are themselves a reminder that power has long been concentrated in the hands of men. In 66 of 89 years, the winner of the title has been a man, by himself. Four times, the winner has been a woman by herself. (That’s only two times more than a non-human — “The Computer,” “The Endangered Earth” — has won the title.) On nine occasions, the winner has been a group of mostly men; on three occasions — including this year — a group of mostly women.
Power was long the domain of men. Some of those men took advantage of that power to harass or abuse women with impunity. The height of the column on the left of the graph above — reflecting Time’s editorial decisions about who was important but, more broadly, who held power — is a quiet demonstration of why the winner of the 2017 title is who it is.
It’s hard not to see the 2016 and 2017 winners as directly linked. In 2016, Trump won the title, as has been the norm for the winner of a presidential election since 2000.
Time is aware of the inescapable tension between Trump’s winning last year and those accusing powerful men of sexual assault winning in 2017. As mentioned, his role in the flood of accusations is discussed in Time’s article. It mentions a lawsuit filed by former “Apprentice” contest Summer Zervos accusing Trump of defamation.
The magazine may be less cognizant of how its history of awardees serves as a testament to the long-standing, ingrained power of (mostly white) men in American society. Although, to be fair, “American Men” have never been named “Person of the Year.”
This article was corrected to indicate that Simpson was born in the United States.