Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg is not only the youngest Person of the Year ever, she is only the fifth woman – er, girl; er, female – in the 90-plus years Time has been naming a Man/Woman/Person of the Year.

In the remarkably sexist history of the honor, men have been chosen 66 times, groups of people 21 times, and non-human entities twice (“The Computer” and “The Endangered Earth”).

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe were also on the shortlist of potential winners. Had one of them been chosen, she would have been the first American woman chosen in more than 80 years.

The last American woman selected, in 1936, was Wallis Simpson – a woman famous for getting divorced and then getting married. Granted, she married the king of England, who abdicated his throne for her in what was a juicy but somewhat singular accomplishment.

But at least the magazine used Simpson’s name; the next year, Soong Mei-ling was selected alongside her husband, Chinese President Chiang Kai-shek as “Man and Wife of the Year.” The Wellesley grad was not referred to by name, only as “Madame Chiang Kai-shek.”

The other women who have been picked by themselves are Queen Elizabeth II in 1952, Corazon Aquino, the Philippines’ first female president, in 1986 and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2015.


Women have been chosen more often as either named groups (“The Whistleblowers” in 2002) or in unnamed groups of all genders (“The Ebola Fighters” in 2014).

In 1975, “American Women” – all 111 million of them – were chosen, because, as Time put it, “enough U.S. women have so deliberately taken possession of their lives that the event is spiritually equivalent to the discovery of a new continent.” Yes, it actually wrote that. A dozen women were profiled as representing this new continent, including first lady Betty Ford, Rep. Barbara Jordan, D-Texas, and tennis player Billie Jean King.

Thunberg was chosen for starting a global movement of young people striking for action on climate change. Pelosi was shortlisted as she leads House Democrats in a historic effort to impeach President Trump, Time’s 2016 Person of the Year. In 2007, the year Pelosi became the first female speaker, the Person of the Year was Vladimir Putin.

Time invented what was originally “Man of the Year” by accident in the first week of January 1928. As publisher P.I. Prentice explained later, it was a slow news week, and editors were struggling to come up with someone to grace its cover. Seven months earlier, in May 1927, the magazine had bungled its coverage of aviator Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic, so someone suggested he receive a new title of “Man of the Year,” and voilà! Problem solved, award born.

Time changed the “Man of the Year” title a few times over the years in the rare instance they didn’t give it to a man, and then permanently changed it to “Person of the Year” in 1999 – 24 years after the discovery of a brand new continent filled with women.


Related Headlines

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.