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"Discovered: The Monarch's Mexican Haven," August 1976 | "Sicily," August 1995 | "Orangutans," October 1975

Leading Ladies: The Women of National Geographic

“The cover of National Geographic is an invitation. ‘Come look,’ it says. ‘See what wonder the world contains.'”—Chris Johns, former Editor in Chief

The first cover photograph to appear along with the magazine’s classic yellow border was in September 1959, of a U.S. Navy fighter jet. Since then, the cover images have brought readers to every continent, to the ocean depths and into space as part of the magazine’s acclaimed storytelling. National Geographic’s new book, The Covers, continues this journey with backstories about the subjects and the photographers.

Over the coming weeks, we will be combing through the over 600 illustrated covers to bring you gems that catch our eye in categories we are known for: people and culture, exploration, and animals. Today, a look at women around the world.


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Top row, left to right:

November 1964. A performer with the Peking Opera School. Photograph by Joergen Bisch

July 1966. The photograph of a woman romping in the waves caused a stir with readers. “Shame on you!” wrote one woman, aghast that her Geographic was sporting a bathing beauty in a wet swimsuit. “It looks like a soap ad!” opined another outraged subscriber. “Oh my G-d, not the NG, too,” complained one man, while another asserted that the cover was “half Coney Island and half Madison Avenue, with all the sickening dental display of both.” Actually the surf she was enjoying was at Cape Hatteras National Seashore, a national park. Photograph by Emory Kristof

June 1975. A traditionally dressed equestrienne rides in one of the celebrated processions of Spain’s annual Seville Fair. Photograph by Joseph J. Scherschel

October 1975. Engaged in the first long-term study of orangutans in the wilds of Borneo, primatologist Biruté Galdikas (the third of the so-called Trimates, beside Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall) found that she spent half her time observing the habits of the reclusive adult apes, and the other half playing surrogate mother to orphaned youngsters. Photograph by Rob Brindamour

Bottom row, left to right:

August 1976. Monarch butterflies swarm researcher Catalina Aguado’s turtleneck and bell-bottoms. Photograph by Albert Moldvay

February 1986. Copper or brass neck-rings were once universally worn by married Ndebele women of South Africa. Such iindzila were donned soon after a girl wed, around the age of 12. The custom was fast fading, though, when Peter Magubane documented their troubled lives under apartheid—a coverage in which he was also hit by 17 pellets of bird shot fired from a policeman’s riot gun. Photograph by Peter Magubane

August 1995. Dusk was falling on the ancient Greek outdoor theater in Syracuse, Sicily, as Italian actress Benedetta Buccellato, preparing for an upcoming role, took a few turns behind the set. Bill Allard stepped into her path, walked backward, photographed her, and said “Grazie” as she passed. She nodded, but never spoke a word. Photograph by William Albert Allard

August 1999. A special issue on the eve of the Millenium surveyed the emergence of a new world culture—a well-educated, technologically savvy, cosmopolitan one shared by elites around the globe. Joe McNally’s photograph of biochemist Nakshatra Reddy of Mumbai, who prefers wearing traditional clothing, and her daughter Meghana, a model more comfortable in a catsuit of her own design, typifies this trend. Photograph by Joe McNally


National Geographic’s new book The Covers: Iconic Photographs, Unforgettable Stories is available for purchase here.