Who is the American Woman?
The question is often asked, but the answer is elusive.
Of course there is no one American Woman. But perhaps we can form an idea of this intriguing person when we glimpse her from several different angles. Today we launch an occasional series in which we focus on American women who have captured our imagination.
We begin with an individual who never wrote a word on the subject, but whose image has likely come to the minds of millions when they hear the question, 'Who is the American Woman?'. She is the subject of the 1951 photo "American Girl in Italy," and her image is considered one of the most widely known and loved of the 20th century. Her name is Ninalee Craig.
This famous photo of her was taken in Florence on August 21, 1951 by another American woman, photographer Ruth Orkin. The day before, Orkin and Craig, who was then known by her maiden name, Ninalee Allen, had met at the $1-a-night hotel on the Arno River where both women were staying. Orkin, 29 at the time, was in Italy after completing an assignment in Israel. Allen was a 23 year old graduate of Sarah Lawrence College who had decided to leave her job in Manhattan to travel in Europe.
The two women got into a conversation about their experiences as women traveling alone, something rarely done at the time. According to Craig both found that, contrary to expectations, they did not feel endangered but instead were having a terrific time. In the course of that conversation, they decided to go out together in Florence the next day and shoot pictures of what it was really like to travel alone as a young woman. During the two hours they spent walking around Florence, Orkin shot the famous photo of the statuesque Ninalee holding her shawl as she walks past fifteen men who stare, or perhaps leer, at her.
In 1952 the photo was published in Cosmopolitan magazine in an article entitled, 'Don't Be Afraid to Travel Alone.' Later it was blown up and displayed in New York's Grand Central Station as part of a promotional by Kodak, and in the 1970s launched into dorm room decor eternity when it was printed as a poster.
Until Orkin died in 1985, both she and Craig stressed the point that "American Girl in Italy" was a celebration of the independent woman who is not afraid to live life. More recently, Ninalee Craig has spoken out more pointedly. In a 2011 interview with the Today show, the 83 year old Craig said of the photo, "Some people want to use it as a symbol of harassment of women, but that's what we've been fighting all these years. It's not a symbol of harassment. It's a symbol of a woman having an absolutely wonderful time!"
Today Ninalee Craig is 89 years old and lives in Toronto. Here is a recent photo of her posing with Orkin's 'American Girl in Italy.' She is wearing the same orange shawl.