How women broke into the male-dominated world of cartoons and illustrations Dale Messick, creator of the comic strip “Brenda Starr,” looks up from some of her strips in her studio in her Chicago apartment in 1975. (AP/Jessie Willcox Smith)
How women broke into the male-dominated world of cartoons and illustrations
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Dalia Messick was a cartoonist. She struggled to get her work published early in her career. She got some advice. It was from the head of the Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate’s secretary. She was told to change her character’s profession. She was also told to change her own name.

Messick did both. She changed her protagonist to a journalist. She went by the name “Dale.” Her strip was “Brenda Starr, Reporter.” It became nationally syndicated by the 1940s. It was in over 250 papers ten years later. Readers loved the globe-trotting adventures Brenda. She was the redheaded career woman.

Messick’s story is just one example of the struggles faced by female artists. There is a new exhibition. It is at the Library of Congress. It is called “Drawn to Purpose: American Women Illustrators and Cartoonists.” It honors the lesser-known, contributions of female artists. It spans centuries. It shows how women broke into these male-dominated fields.

Martha Kennedy is the curator of popular and applied graphic arts. She works at the Library of Congress. She centered the exhibit around two themes. First, she wanted to explore “how imagery of women and gender relations has changed over time.” And second, “how broadening of subject matter happens over time and in different art forms.” 

Kennedy shared the overall goal. It is to “foster a sense of shared history among female artists." She wants to inspire younger generations entering these fields. And she wants to spur further research in the library’s collections.

The exhibit features nearly 70 pieces. This is from in an impressive array of 43 artists. The work spans from the 19th century to today. It has artwork from Alice Barber Stephens. It has her Impressionist-influenced illustrations. It has work from Anne Harriet Fish. Her work shows elegant, fine-line drawings. These drawings graced more than 30 Vanity Fair covers. 

It also includes Roz Chast’s work. It has her frenzied and funny cartoons. They appeared in The New Yorker. 

Kennedy saw she had more ground to cover. So she wrote a companion book. It comes out in March. And she curated a second rotation of the show. It has an entirely different lineup of artists. It will replace the current one. This will happen in mid-May. 

“There are a lot of women who did really interesting, innovative work who have been overlooked. They are worthy of further study,” Kennedy says.

The earliest examples are those female artists from the “Golden Age of Illustration.” Those are the years between 1890 and 1930. This paralleled the turn-of-the-century renaissance in publishing. Magazine, newspaper and book printing flourished. At the same time, many women built careers out of illustrating children’s books. 

Jessie Willcox Smith did illustrations for Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies. They are among her most admired work. Many of the women also drew for magazines. They drew for Harper’s. They drew for McClure’s. And they drew for Scribner’s. 

This coincided with the emergence of the “New Woman.” It was a feminist ideal. It took root in the late 19th century. Several artists drew scenes from outside the domestic sphere. They examined changing conventions of the era. 

Jessie Gillespie’s Pantaloons were published in the Evening Sunday Star. This was in 1914. Kennedy explains, “we can see a strong shift from a late 19th century scene marked by strong social formality to an early 20th century. These vignettes give humorous takes on fashion trends and clearly display greatly decreased formality between women and men in plausible, everyday scenarios.”

Women interested in drawing cartoons and comics were often limited. They had to stick to certain subjects. “Those able to develop successful strips were restricted to cute children and animals.” That's according to Kennedy. 

Grace Drayton is one example. She created the Campbell Soup kids. Marjorie Henderson Buell is another example. She created Little Lulu. Rose O’Neill was an illustrator. She drew for Puck magazine. She became one of the earliest successful female cartoonists. This was when she first introduced her Kewpies. They were in Ladies’ Home Journal. That was in 1909. Within a few years, she created dolls based on the characters. They were wildly popular. She became wealthy and well-known.

Messick started drawing Brenda Starr in 1940. The comic strip marked a big shift in subject matter. As “Dale,” Messick was able to tap into a genre of cartoons that was mostly restricted to male artists. "Brenda Starr marked a milestone among strips by women.” Kennedy writes. "It featured a worthy female counterpart to male heroes in adventure strips."

One precursor to Starr was Jackie Ormes’ “Torchy Brown in Dixie to Harlem.” It followed a smart and rebellious young black woman. She was moving from the South to the North. It ran for a couple years. This was in the late 1930s. It was in African American newspapers. The character later returned. This was in the 1950s. “Torchy in Heartbeats,” is on display in the exhibit. Ormes’ work was groundbreaking. Her characters and stories were real. This was at a time when blacks were typically portrayed in a derogatory fashion.

The 1970s and 1980s marked yet another a shift in subject matter. Many female artists began to source material from their lives. They also drew upon the lives of people they knew. Lynda Barry’s One! Hundred! Demons! is a graphic novel. It draws on some of her personal experiences. It is in a style she termed “autobiofictionalography.” 

Female artists in these fields have historically banded together. Philadelphia-based illustrator Alice Barber Stephens joined painter and engraver Emily Sartain in 1897. They founded a female artist organization. It was called The Plastic Club. It was intended “to bring together experienced, successful artists and younger artists who were just beginning their artistic careers.” 

Cartoonist Trina Robbins and her peers started a publication. It was called Wimmen’s Comix. That was in the 1970s. They did so because “their male counterparts in the underground comix movement in the San Francisco area were not open to including their work in anthologies.”

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