For 72 years, TIME named a Man of the Year. With a few exceptions, it was almost always a man, usually a President or a Prime Minister or perhaps a titan of industry. Throughout history, these are the kinds of men who have wielded influence over the world.
In 1999, Man of the Year gave way to Person of the Year. While the name rightly changed, too often the choice was the same. With this 100 Women of the Year project, we’re spotlighting influential women who were often overshadowed. This includes women who occupied positions from which the men were often chosen, like world leaders Golda Meir and Corazon Aquino, but far more who found their influence through activism or culture. As former TIME editor-in-chief Nancy Gibbs writes, this project is an exercise in looking at the ways in which women held power due to systemic inequality. “Women,” Gibbs writes, “were wielding soft power long before the concept was defined.”
To recognize these women, we have created 89 new TIME covers, many of which were designed by prominent artists. We left intact the 11 covers for women who had been named Person of the Year. The 100 choices in this project are the result of a months-long process that began with more than 600 nominations submitted by TIME staff; experts in the field; our creative partner, filmmaker Alma Har’el; and a committee of notable women from various backgrounds.
This process prompted just as many questions as answers: “What does it mean to be a woman?” “How has society failed to acknowledge the contributions of women?” One answer came from feminist organizer Gloria Steinem, whom we picked for 1970, and whom we asked to revisit a piece she wrote that year in TIME called “What It Would Be Like If Women Win”—a rare opportunity to reflect on 50 years of change.
By 1989, Madonna, the scrappy performer born Madonna Louise Ciccone, was already a superstar: she’d whirled onto the landscape, in a torn-up T-shirt and two wrists’ worth of rubber bracelets, just as America was awakening to the AIDS crisis, and for young people became a symbol of determination and self-invention. She had defied our expectations so many times. How many surprises could she have left up her lace sleeves?
The bombshell answer came in the form of a hymn of joyous carnality, “Like a Prayer,” the lead single and title track of her fourth studio album. In the video, Madonna—sending a marvelously mixed message of purity and seduction in a 1950s-style slip, a discreet cross sparkling around her neck—spreads her gospel of joy and erotic ardor within the sacred confines of a country church. A statue of a saint, presumably Martin de Porres—he’s a black man locked in his own little cage, a not-so-metaphorical prison—comes to life and kisses her gently on the forehead. This could be the start of a mutual seduction, but he leaves her. She seizes a dagger and wraps her fingers around the blade, though the resulting cuts aren’t the normal kind: stigmata flower in the palms of her hands like two bloody pennies.
Pepsi had used “Like a Prayer”—accompanied by tamer imagery—in a commercial. But the video cast the song in a new light, and religious groups were enraged. Pepsi canceled her contract in response. Yet Madonna’s allegedly blasphemous act of creation carried her all the way to the bank: “Like a Prayer” spent three weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and the album on which it appeared went on to sell more than 15 million copies. Even more significantly, this close-to-perfect song marked Madonna as an artist in it for the long haul, one whose marriage of provocation and pop would inspire future generations to shape their careers in her image. She couldn’t be underestimated or circumscribed, least of all by a multibillion-dollar corporation. She was a material girl, always, but only on her own terms. —Stephanie Zacharek