How women broke into the male-dominated world of cartoons and illustrations
Dalia Messick was a cartoonist who struggled to get her work published. She got a couple pieces of advice from the head of the Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate’s secretary. She was told to change her character’s profession and to change her own name.
Messick did both, recasting her bandit protagonist as a roving journalist. She adopted the pen name “Dale.” Her strip, “Brenda Starr, Reporter,” became nationally syndicated by the 1940s. A decade later, it was in over 250 papers. Readers loved the globe-trotting adventures and romances of 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 at the Library of Congress. It is called “Drawn to Purpose: American Women Illustrators and Cartoonists.” It is dedicated to exploring the lesser-known, centuries-spanning contributions of female artists. It shows how women broke into these male-dominated fields.
Martha Kennedy is the curator of popular and applied graphic arts 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.”
The goal, Kennedy says, is to “foster a sense of shared history among female artists." She wants to inspire younger generations entering these fields and spur further research in the library’s collections.
The exhibit features nearly 70 pieces from in an impressive array of 43 artists. The work spans from the 19th century to today. The artwork ranges from Alice Barber Stephens’ Impressionist-influenced illustrations to Anne Harriet Fish’s elegant, fine-line drawings. These drawings graced more than 30 Vanity Fair covers.
The work also includes Roz Chast’s frenzied and funny cartoons in The New Yorker.
Kennedy saw she had more ground to cover. So she wrote a companion book (out in March) and curated a second rotation of the show. It has an entirely different lineup of artists. It will replace the current one in mid-May. “There are a lot of women who did really interesting, innovative work who have been overlooked and 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 that paralleled the turn-of-the-century renaissance in publishing. As magazine, newspaper and book printing flourished, many women built careers out of illustrating children’s books.
Jessie Willcox Smith’s illustrations for Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies are among her most admired work. Many of the women also drew for magazines. They drew for Harper’s, McClure’s and Scribner’s.
This coincided with the emergence of the “New Woman.” It was a feminist ideal that took root in the late 19th century. Several artists drew scenes from outside the domestic sphere and examined changing conventions of the era.
Jessie Gillespie’s Panta=loons were published in the Evening Sunday Star 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 to certain subjects. “Those able to develop successful strips were restricted to cute children and animals.” That's according to Kennedy.
One example was Grace Drayton, who created the Campbell Soup kids. Another example was Marjorie Henderson Buell, who created Little Lulu. Rose O’Neill was an illustrator for Puck magazine. She became one of the earliest successful female cartoonists. This was when she first introduced her Kewpies in Ladies’ Home Journal. That was in 1909. Within a few years, she created dolls based on the characters. They were so wildly popular that she became wealthy and well-known.
Messick started drawing Brenda Starr in 1940. The comic strip marked an important 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 moving from the South to the North. It ran for a couple years in the late 1930s. It was in African American newspapers. The character later returned 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 and those of people they knew. Lynda Barry’s One! Hundred! Demons! is a graphic novel that draws on some of her personal experiences in a style she termed “autobiofictionalography.”
Female artists in these fields have historically banded together. In 1897, Philadelphia-based illustrator Alice Barber Stephens joined painter and engraver Emily Sartain to found 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.”
In the 1970s, cartoonist Trina Robbins and her peers started a publication called Wimmen’s Comix. 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.”