I’m constantly being asked why there are
so few women that are editorial cartoonists. I don’t have a good
answer for that. One of the few female cartoonists on our site,
altie cartoonist Jen Sorensen, wrote an excellent column on
the topic for Campus
Progress and has graciously allowed us to reprint it here.
Wanted: Female Cartoonist
By Jen Sorensen
Why are there so few female political cartoonists? I’ve been
asked that question many times over the years. It’s OK, I don’t
mind. We’re something of a rare breed. Exact statistics are difficult
to find-even the national group Association of American Editorial
Cartoonists can only estimate the national number of political
cartoonists, let alone break them down by gender, ethnicity,
or class. But to give you a rough idea, of the association’s
185 current regular members, only 15 are women. I’m one of them.
My short (and admittedly Zen-like) explanation is that there
are so few female political cartoonists largely because there
are so few female political cartoonists. Drawing cartoons and
comics has traditionally been a guy thing-a somewhat nerdy guy
thing, but a guy thing nonetheless. Without role models who look
like you, or friends with similar interests, any activity becomes
less inviting. It might not even cross your mind as a possibility.
But when did political cartooning first become the province of
dudes? Patriot dude Ben Franklin is widely credited with the
first American political cartoon: The famous "Join or Die" drawing of
the chopped-up snake representing the 13 original colonies.
In the 1870s, a dude named Thomas Nast became the first major
editorial page cartoonist, followed by 20th-century dudely doodlers
such as Bill Mauldin and Herbert "Herblock" Block.
In 1915, Edwina Dumm became the first American non-dude
to work full-time as an editorial cartoonist, a remarkable
feat considering women didn’t win the right to vote until 1920.
Given that women were deemed irrational, not expected to hold
intellectual jobs, and certainly not supposed to have political
opinions, the skewed demographics of the profession don’t seem
all that mysterious.
A more contemporary problem comes in the form of profitable and
supposedly progressive web publications like The Huffington Post
that make it a policy not to pay for content. This business model
presumes contributors have other sources of income; paying in
"exposure" instead. If this setup becomes the industry
standard, those without ample resources, especially women and
minorities, will simply not be able to afford to survive as political
The challenges faced by female cartoonists parallel those of
female op-ed writers. Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus recently
suggested that the dearth of female op-ed writers in newspapers
is largely due to the imposition of "our own glass ceiling"
as opposed to editors’ sexism. Women need to show more chutzpah,
she argues. We must close the "cockiness gap" between
ourselves and the great hordes of brashly bloviating males.
Katha Pollitt has rightly noted, however, there’s an abundance
of highly qualified and willing female writers whose numbers
are not reflected on the commentary pages of major newspapers.
The op-ed pages of the Post feature two women and 23 men, despite
the fact that plenty of women write about politics and current
Clearly, forces beyond "our own glass ceilings" are
at work. In the case of political cartoonists, however, there
aren’t quite so many women waiting in the wings.
This is not to cut Marcus any slack. Her argument fails to address
the often subtle ways in which gender inequality works. If there
is a cockiness gap, it might have something to do with ye olde
double standard that ambitious women are perceived as you-know-whats.
To be fair, Marcus does facetiously refer to "a certain
unbecoming arrogance" required of outspoken women, but she
paradoxically blames women for not displaying it.
Media coverage of cartoonists works the same way. The Columbia Journalism Review recently interviewed
political cartoonists and editors about their opinion of
the controversial New Yorker cover; they spoke with nine men
and zero women.
So how did I buck the trend? It’s hard to say. I do know I recognized
the unfairness of gender roles from a very early age, even though
nobody slipped a copy of The Feminine Mystique into my playpen.
My parents did indulge my tomboyish tendencies, though, buying
me reams of comics and copies of MAD Magazine. As teachers, they
also valued education and creativity, and were fully supportive
of my round-the-clock cartooning habit. There wasn’t much else
to do where we lived; as far as I was concerned, drawing comics
was how I entertained myself.
While in college in the mid-1990s, I was invited to submit to
an all-female comic anthology called Action Girl. This was my
professional debut. Thanks in part to Action Girl, I was motivated
to publish my own comic book after graduating. The result: Slowpoke
Comix #1, a collection of short stories that were precursors
to my weekly strip. One marked the debut of my character Drooly
Julie, a randy femme with a penchant for stubbly metalheads.
It was only after the 2000 election that my work took a sharp
political turn, as did that of many other cartoonists. As I crossed
this threshold, I wasn’t thinking much about breaking gender
barriers. I was just freaked out by the country’s sudden takeover
Over the years, my work appeared in more and more places, often
alternative newsweeklies. These papers tended to be more progressive-minded
than mainstream media, and I never got the sense that I was going
up against a wall of chauvinism. I do get the sense, however,
that some progressive publications don’t try as hard as they
could to diversify their mastheads. As Women In Media and News founder Jennifer Pozner
puts it, one of the biggest obstacles appears to be time:
It can take longer and require more effort to look beyond the
familiar or entrenched stables of male cartoonists and editorial
Despite these occasional frustrations, the past decade suggests
that the situation is improving. If my favorite comic convention,
the Small Press Expo in Maryland, is any indication, there are
more women than ever on both sides of the exhibitor tables. To
invoke the flip side of my Zen koan: The more female cartoonists
there are, the more there will be.
Jen Sorensen draws Slowpoke Comics. She recently
released Slowpoke: One Nation, Oh My God! It is great! Click here
to buy it. C’mon.