The Only Woman

Cover image for The Only Woman by Immy Humes (Phaidon, 2022)

Immy Humes’ new book The Only Woman (Phaidon, 2022) presents 100 photos, each of which shows one woman among many men. When I read her introduction, I thought, “Yes. Exactly!” She writes, “Each photo offers forensic evidence of patriarchy on parade, along with all the other forces of domination.” Humes asks, “Why her and only her? What does her onliness mean?”

She expresses the very questions I had while writing about the only woman in this photo.


The sole woman amidst these ten men is my mother, three years before she would become my mother. They are at IBM in London in the spring of 1966. Eighteen months earlier, she — a 22-year-old South African and university graduate — arrived in England, got a job at IBM, and began her 50-year career in computing and computing education. The previous sentence makes her success sound like a foregone conclusion.

It wasn’t.

I tell the rest of the story in “‘Well Paid for a Woman’: Gloria Hardman’s 50-Year Career in Computing,” published last week in IEEE: Annals of the History of Computing.

How did I, a scholar of children’s literature and comics, come to write a piece for a journal devoted to the history of computing?

Via comic strips, of course.

In June, I was at the Smithsonian, photographing Barnaby strips from 1951 for the fifth and final volume of Crockett Johnson’s classic comic, to be published by Fantagraphics next year. I’m co-editor of these books, and finding clean copies of 70-year-old comic strips is harder than you might think. I got these from binders that Johnson himself assembled, in the hopes that the strips would one day be photographed and collected in a book. The binders are in his papers, housed in the Mathematics Division of the Smithsonian.

You read that correctly: The Mathematics Division.

Though remembered as a cartoonist and author of picturebooks, Johnson devoted his final decade to creating over 100 geometric paintings of mathematical theorems, and (in some cases) using his painting to devise two original theorems of his own. Thanks to the interest of a former curator, his paintings (and papers) all came to the Mathematics Division. While writing my double biography of Johnson and Ruth Krauss (published 2012), I visited his papers many times.


As a result, I have known the current curator — Dr. Peggy Kidwell — for over 20 years. During my visit this past June, I was telling her over lunch about my mother’s career. Peggy suggested I submit an account to IEEE: Annals of the History of Computing.

So, I drew upon my experience as a biographer. I emailed and interviewed my mother’s former colleagues and students. I contacted our family’s archivists. And I used my mother’s own first-person recollections, all written before Alzheimer’s claimed her memory, sight, and voice.

I also repurposed work I had already done. When my mother had to move into the Memory Care wing of her eldercare facility, I started writing a (still-unfinished) biography of her. I placed a copy in her room so that visitors could tell her about herself: she remained interested in her life even though she could no longer remember it.

To create a small version for IEEE (and to stay within the editor’s word limit), I narrowed my focus to her professional career — which, of course, is the focus of the journal. I wish I could have included more. But biography and history are, of their nature, narratives of omission. You must be selective. To include all you know would overwhelm the reader.

Though my mother will not be among the readers of this piece, I hope that you’ll take a look.

If you do, you’ll learn what it is like to be the only woman in the room — a more common phenomenon than you might think.

Since The Only Woman was published last month, people have been sending Humes their “only woman” photos and the stories behind them. As Humes said upon sharing the profile of my mother via her social media, “These photos are precious and undervalued historical testimonies and I dream of more and more of them surfacing to new appreciation around the world!”

Philip Nel, University Distinguished Professor

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