Swedish photographer Hans Runesson captured this moment on 13 April 1985 – and his image has endured since, voted Picture of the Century and resurfacing on social media in 2016 with the call to arms: “Be the woman hitting a neo-Nazi with a handbag you wish to see in the world”. Taken in Växjö, Sweden during a demonstration by the neo-Nazi Nordic Reich Party, the photo shows 38-year-old Danuta Danielsson swiping at one of the marchers with her handbag.
The Polish-Swedish passerby, whose family members had reportedly been sent to a Nazi concentration camp, snapped “impulsively”, according to Runesson, who told BBC Culture that the man did “nothing – he walked further” afterwards. Despite the incident happening in a fleeting instance, the photo continues to resonate for many as a silent rallying cry.
And it had an eerie parallel in 2016, when social activist Tess Asplund placed herself in the path of protesters from the Nordic Resistance Movement in Sweden. David Lagerlöf snapped the instant when the social activist confronted a May Day march of 300 uniformed nationalists in Borlänge, Sweden: fist clenched, her impassive stance communicated as much as countless violent encounters.
Standing still, her dress fluttering, as two police officers in full riot gear approach her, a woman protester in Baton Rouge, Louisiana made the headlines with a similarly resolute body language when this image was taken in 2016. Hailed as an “instant classic”, the photo of Ieshia Evans being arrested at a Black Lives Matter protest was compared with Stuart Franklin’s image of ‘Tank Man’ at Tiananmen Square or the picture of an anti-Vietnam War demonstrator placing flowers in police officer’s gun barrels.
Immobile, composed, Evans is like the calm at the eye of a storm – her comment above a Facebook post of the image was: “I appreciate the well wishes and love, but this is the work of God. I am a vessel!” Taken by the photographer Jonathan Bachman, it has been seen by some as a symbol of peaceful defiance. A nurse, Evans travelled to Baton Rouge to protest the fatal police shooting of Alton Sterling, telling The Guardian: “I have a six-year-old son, Justin, and I fear more for his life than I do for my own. How should I raise him? To be afraid? To keep his head down and not get in trouble… Or do I raise him in strength?”
One photo taken more than a century ago reveals an act of defiance that didn’t end peacefully. Suffragette Emily Wilding Davison died when she stepped in front of the King's horse Anmer, during the Epsom Derby of 1913. Recent analysis of footage captured on newsreel cameras appears to suggest she was attempting to attach a scarf to the horse’s bridle – yet whatever her intention, Davison has been hailed by some as a martyr, and an emblem of female emancipation.
Photographed by Carlos Vera Mancilla in 2016, this photo reveals the visual power of an individual stance. Taken at demonstrations marking the 43rd anniversary of the military coup that resulted in the overthrow of President Salvador Allende by Augusto Pinochet on 11 September 1973, the image captures the full force of a glare.
Outside the General Cemetery of Santiago – the site of Allende’s grave, and a memorial to those ‘disappeared’ during Pinochet's regime – an unnamed female protester squared up to a riot policeman, staring unflinchingly through his visor.
Another photo, taken in the Honduran city of Tegucigalpa this year, shows a less confrontational form of defiance: lying down. A supporter of the defeated presidential candidate Salvador Nasralla, protesting the contested re-election of President Juan Orlando Hernández, lay on the pavement in front of riot police – her seeming nonchalance in fact a display of inner strength.
In September 1981, 36 women chained themselves to a fence at a US military airbase in Berkshire, England. They were protesting the decision of the British government to allow nuclear cruise missiles to be sited at RAF Greenham Common – and they established a peace camp that remained there for 19 years.
In 1982, it was decided that the camp should involve women only, creating a collective identity as mothers to protest in the name of all future generations. On 12 December 1982, 30,000 women held hands around the 6 miles (9.7 km) perimeter of the base (pictured); a year later, 50,000 women attended.
Hiroko Hatakeyama, who survived the bombing of Hiroshima, went to the peace camp. “I believe there’s a connection between what the women at Greenham did and the recent women’s marches around the world,” she told The Guardian.
Images of events such as Slutwalk, Take Back the Night and the Women’s March on Washington have reflected strength in unity in recent decades. Yet there’s perhaps one women’s march that had more far-reaching impact than any other.
This photo shows women marching in St Petersburg on 8 March 1917. The date (23 February in the old Russian calendar) marked International Women’s Day, an important day in the socialist calendar – and, now, it also commemorates the first day of the Russian Revolution. While the marchers carried placards that had patriotic slogans, they also demanded change like “Feed the children of the defenders of the motherland” or “Supplement the ration of soldiers’ families, defenders of freedom and the people’s peace”.
“By midday of that day in 1917 there were tens of thousands of mainly women congregating on the Nevsky Prospekt, the principal avenue in the centre of the Russian capital, Petrograd,” writes Orlando Figes, author of A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution. On the following day, protesters had scaled the statue of Alexander III in Znamenskaya Square, calling for the downfall of the monarchy. And a week later, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated the throne. The women’s march had become a revolution.
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