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'Very Funny Ladies' sketches out the history of women cartoonists at 'The New Yorker'

<em>Very Funny Ladies: The New Yorker's Women Cartoonists</em>, Liza Donnelly
Prometheus
Very Funny Ladies: The New Yorker's Women Cartoonists, Liza Donnelly

Cartoonist and writer Liza Donnelly began drawing some 60 years ago, when she was around 7, after her mother gave her a book by James Thurber. She started tracing his art, and it made her mom smile.

"I was kind of hooked because I got a nice reaction," says Donnelly, who is now a long-time contributor to The New Yorker magazine.

She initially wanted to be a political cartoonist, though she says she didn't think she had enough opinions to do that. There also weren't many women political cartoonists at the time, but that didn't deter Donnelly from trying to make a career from her drawing.

"I just wanted to be a cartoonist. So I paid attention to the cartoons," she says. "I focused on The New Yorker. I thought, 'well, they have political cartoons. Maybe I can do something along that kind of political."

Donnelly kept drawing through high school and college, then moved to New York City where she got a job at the American Museum of Natural History. She kept submitting cartoons to The New Yorker and in 1979 they bought one, but the magazine wouldn't actually run a Donnelly cartoon until 1982.

Liza Donnelly is a writer and award-winning cartoonist.
/ Elena Rossini
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Elena Rossini
Liza Donnelly is a writer and award-winning cartoonist.

"Back then when you...got in, when you got a sale, it was like you felt like you were being brought into the fold, you know," Donnelly says. "I was so excited. Just thrilled."

Her latest book, Very Funny Ladies: The New Yorker's Women Cartoonists, publishes in March. In it, Donnelly continues telling the history of some of the women artists published in the nearly 100-year-old magazine starting from 2005, where her earlier book, Funny Ladies: The New Yorker's Greatest Women Cartoonists And Their Cartoons, left off.


Interview highlights

On being a woman cartoonist

I was always aware that there were not many of us in the business...and I think I saw it as a challenge. Maybe in the '90s, I started to realize that I could make my people in my cartoons women. It was like, 'Oh yeah, I could make the people speaking in my cartoons women, it does not have to be the default that a man is talking. It doesn't have to be about women's rights at all, just a cartoon and women talking.' And also during the '90s I started doing drawings of women being snarky, women kind of teasing the men in their life. That was something that I wasn't even aware of at the time, but looking back on it now, I think it was the beginning of a feminist awakening on my part. I was always a feminist, but I realized that I could make my women talk and I could make them be sort of powerful with their humor.

I can't believe it, sometimes, that I'm still doing this. I love doing it, but I still feel like I'm a newbie because things are changing constantly. Culture is changing and I have to keep up with it. I've done a lot of hard — for me — hard-hitting feminist cartoons about women's rights issues, particularly when I was a young adult. I would do cartoons about love, relationships, interactions with men and other women. But now that I'm older, I have to adjust. The young adult issues that so many young cartoonists are dealing with, that's their realm right now. I have to figure out what my realm is as an older person and a seasoned feminist and an observer of life. And I haven't fully figured that out yet. It's changing with the culture, but also changing with your place in the culture.

Sarah Akinterinwa is one of the new cartoonists brought to <em>The New Yorker</em> in 2020, and while not the first Black female cartoonist of the magazine (Emily Richards Hopkins may have been, in 2004), Donnelly says Akinterinwa is representative of the increased racial and gender diversity of the talent pool in the last three years.
/ Liza Donnelly / Prometheus
/
Liza Donnelly / Prometheus
Sarah Akinterinwa is one of the new cartoonists brought to The New Yorker in 2020, and while not the first Black female cartoonist of the magazine (Emily Richards Hopkins may have been, in 2004), Donnelly says Akinterinwa is representative of the increased racial and gender diversity of the talent pool in the last three years.

On The New Yorker and women cartoonists

Lee Lorenz was the cartoon editor during my early days. I asked him, 'were you looking for women cartoonists in the '70s?' And he said, 'No, no, I was just looking for different ways to express humor.' So the women that he brought in...drew a little bit differently than the standard gag cartoon. Humorous drawings that were different than the usual model. Now I really don't like to say that we draw differently because we don't, but I think in the beginning, in the '70s, we approached humor a little bit differently. And now, if you look at the magazine, the cartoons...women are drawing about feminist subjects overtly in ways that we didn't back in the '70s.

Donnelly was going to quit cartooning after 9/11, but then she came up with the idea for this cartoon and <em>The New Yorker</em> published it a month or two later. "It really helped me get back on track. I thought, 'OK, I do have a purpose here," she says. "I can bring that cartoon back out all the time at different points, and it still resonates for different things."
/ Liza Donnelly
/
Liza Donnelly
Donnelly was going to quit cartooning after 9/11, but then she came up with the idea for this cartoon and The New Yorker published it a month or two later. "It really helped me get back on track. I thought, 'OK, I do have a purpose here," she says. "I can bring that cartoon back out all the time at different points, and it still resonates for different things."

On barriers to women becoming cartoonists

Humor is a powerful tool. To make fun of somebody, even if it's lovingly, it's a powerful thing, and women were not, first of all, women were not wanting to do that. We were trained not to do that by society. We were culturally conditioned that we don't. We're not funny. We don't tell jokes. Men do that. So it's partly women not wanting to enter the field, but also women were not being allowed to enter the field. That's a stronger point. I mean, The New Yorker is a little bit different. But comedy clubs were horrible to women, the owners of the clubs would not would not allow women to perform. So there's the two things going together: the cultural conditioning and then just a flat out, you're not allowed.

Humor can be really divisive. The humor in the '50s and '60s was so sexist and misogynist and racist. So why would a woman want to be involved with that anyway? Like, I don't want to do that kind of humor. I don't want to do that.

On her books about women cartoonists

Helen Hokinson began selling her work to <em>The New Yorker</em> in 1925 and became one of the most celebrated cartoonists of the early magazine until her untimely death in 1949. She published around 1,800 cartoons and covers.
/ Liza Donnelly / Prometheus
/
Liza Donnelly / Prometheus
Helen Hokinson began selling her work to The New Yorker in 1925 and became one of the most celebrated cartoonists of the early magazine until her untimely death in 1949. She published around 1,800 cartoons and covers.

In 1999, I began to think more seriously about why there weren't more women in The New Yorker. I was one of four women when I started. It increased a little bit in the '80s and '90s...but I started thinking, 'Why aren't there more women doing this? What's wrong?' And also I think what prompted it was that I was invited to be on a panel of cartoonists who are women for the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists. I was not a member, but they needed women to be on the panel. So they asked me to join the panel and I was sitting up there... on this panel with maybe five women, I don't remember. And I... looked out at the room. It was a packed room of cartoonists and it was visually jarring because they were all men. It's a roomful of men looking at us, five women on the panel. So that's what got me thinking more seriously about why there aren't more women. And I started researching and came up with the idea for my book, Funny Ladies.

On her favorite woman cartoonist

Barbara Shermund, who I'd not heard of when I started doing the book. Many of us had heard of Helen Hokinson and Mary Petty, these are people from the beginning of the magazine, but I had not heard of Barbara Shermund. She was very prolific back then and ... she drew as if she was a flapper. She really had that modern woman tone to her cartoons in the '20s. She wrote all her captions, as far as I know, until later in life when she started using writers, but I love that about her [and] I love her cartoons. They're subtly feminist from the '20s and I love it.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: February 26, 2022 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous version of this story misspelled Barbara Shermund's last name as Sherman.
Tanya Ballard Brown is an editor for NPR. She joined the organization in 2008.