Winter 2004

Where the Girls Aren’t

Why editorial cartooning is still a boy’s sport.

By Signe Wilkinson
While there is an acute national shortage of female editorial cartoonists, there is no shortage of people asking why. Academics and journalists who wonder why there are so few women cartoonists outnumber the women who actually draw cartoons. There are some simple answers. It is my experience that most women don’t like opening their e-mail to find greetings like, “You liberal cocksucker.”

Who would like receiving a daily dose of hate mail—besides puerile little boys who love picking fights? In other words, who besides editorial cartoonists?

Women spend a good portion of their child-rearing careers breaking up fights. Cartoonists spend their entire careers starting them. When they aren’t separating small combatants, women are saying, “Be nice.” Cartoonists are never nice. As my daughter so kindly points out, “Mom! How can you look at yourself in the mirror when all you do is make fun of people?”

A real woman would say, “You’re right, dear. I am quitting right now to treat AIDS victims in Africa, to teach in the inner city, or to fight for women’s rights in Afghanistan.” Obviously, I’m not a real woman. I am a cartoonist woman. My only excuse is that my job allows me to occasionally draw in defense of AIDS victims, for better schools in the inner city, and against attacks on women’s rights around the globe.

And I’m not alone. Plenty of my male counterparts draw great cartoons on “women’s” issues. Much as I admire their work, however, true liberation is not having a man draw cartoons defending your rights, but being able to draw your own cartoons. Fortunately, there is a small flock of women who choose to express their politics through their art. It’s hard to tell whether it’s a growing flock or not. It’s still so small that, like a flock of sandhill cranes, it could be wiped out by a good hurricane.

There would be more women in the field if there were more jobs for cartoonists generally and more jobs with editors who didn’t look at the prospective applicant and see a woman rather than a cartoonist. Whereas an editor might hire a woman editorial writer with the assurance that any possible urges to write feminist screeds would be mitigated within the “editorial we,” these same editors understand that there is no “cartoonist we.” Since I was hired at the San Jose Mercury News in 1982, only one other woman has been hired as a full-time cartoonist at a major daily newspaper, and that was in 1995 when I was hired at the Philadelphia Daily News. If sex weren’t a factor, Ann Telnaes, the 2001 Pulitzer Prizewinner, would have a staff cartooning job by now.

And there is the ideology. If conservative commentator Ann Coulter drew her opinions as cartoons, she’d have a job tomorrow. Possibly two jobs.
Lastly, insofar as my first editor at the San Jose Mercury News was looking for “diversity,” being a woman was a great career move for me. I don’t feel guilty. Having a wife has been a great career move for many of my male colleagues, particularly those with children. My husband continues to be a profound source of strength through the roughest career patches, and I am deeply grateful to him. Still, he doesn’t do laundry, wait for plumbers, or arrange carpooling, all of which can fracture the precious time one needs to think up a cartoon. Getting in touch with your muse is harder when you have to be getting in touch with the pediatrician, pharmacist and babysitter at the same time. A female writer once quoted in The New York Times Book Review said that raising children meant (and I quote from memory), “My sentences got shorter.” As my children get older and their day-to-day demands fade, I find the time I can spend on my drawings is getting longer.

But I could still use a wife. In addition to the cooking and cleaning, she could appear on cartooning panels that need a woman, go to conferences about women in the arts and/or journalism, and write articles about why there are so few women cartoonists.

Ultimately, writing or talking on the “why are there so few women” question just doesn’t matter. This article will change nothing. Women of humor will continue to emerge, and the really smart ones won’t bother going into newspaper cartooning if there continue to be so few jobs. They will go directly to the Internet or cable or wherever creative satirists are now going.

Still, I have to be grateful to the staff at the Nieman Foundation for asking me to write on this subject. After all, they gave me my punch line:

Nieman Foundation at Harvard University

Dear Mr. Wilkinson,

Melissa Ludtke has asked me to send you this packet of the recent issues of Nieman Reports.

Thank you.

Best regards,
Nieman Reports

Of course, being addressed as Mr. Wilkinson is the biggest complement I could receive. I’m finally a cartoonist.

Signe Wilkinson is the editorial cartoonist for the Philadelphia Daily News.




2 Comments on Where the Girls Aren’t
Tanya Stewart says:
March 23, 2012 at 6:20pm
I am the editorial cartoonist for my town's weekly newspaper, the Berea(KY) Citizen—its first in over a century of publication. I've been doing it for almost nine years now, and having a blast. I don't understand why more women aren't cartoonists—certainly not for a lack of gritty, passionate comments to make! ( Though not for the money.) While I'm generally confined, by the nature of the paper, to dealing with local topics, I often can tie a local issue with broader concerns, and I slip the leash every chance I get. The reward in this less-traveled path is the opportunity to touch lives, to start conversations, to be one more candle of progressive thought defiantly flickering in the face of darkness. If my work sets even one person thinking, then I've given something good to the world.
arlene says:
May 4, 2010 at 10:36pm
hi,
been a political/editorial cartoonist for 21 years in our place, and i am glad to say, I'm still getting by, betting better, tamer richer with experience. sadly, no other women cartoonist tread the less traveled path i choose.
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