The cover of TIME’s Jan. 5, 1976, issue was unprecedented. It featured a dozen “Women of the Year” who symbolized the ascending power and status of women in myriad realms: literature, the military, religion, education, the White House, the statehouse, the Cabinet, Congress, sports, law, journalism and labor.
Yet the “Person of the Year” TIME was recognizing was less any of them than The American Woman writ large. She was the subject of an 11-page spread that chronicled the average woman’s pursuit of equality at home, at the office, in society. “Enough U.S. women have so deliberately taken possession of their lives,” the cover story read, “that the event is spiritually equivalent to the discovery of a new continent.”
Looking back, the strides that justified the selection may seem small, like the fact that 7% of lawyers were women (today it’s 36%) or that there were 18 women in Congress (now 126). But early representation is usually the hardest won. And progress often comes with caveats. In a special section of the historic issue, TIME’s publisher highlighted the work of more than a dozen women who had conducted interviews and research for the project. In the fine print, however, was a fact he did not tout: the ultimate job of writing the cover story had still gone to a man. –Katy Steinmetz
This article is part of 100 Women of the Year, TIME’s list of the most influential women of the past century. Read more about the project, explore the 100 covers and sign up for our Inside TIME newsletter for more.