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Where are the women cartoonists?

Why are there so few women cartoonists? Branch Chair Pennie Quinton described setting up the meeting. She was getting annoyed that the Guardian had used Kate Evan's work once and every other cartoonist appeared to be male. She'd approached Jackie Fleming who said no, you don't want me, you want Blue Lou and Nicola Streeten - they have been working on this. So our speakers were Dr Nicola Streeten, - co-editor of the hot-off-the-press The Inking Woman: 250 Years of Women Cartoon and Comic Artists in Britain - and Blue Lou (on Twitter @blueloutter) - her work includes cartoons for the Morning Star, the Guardian, New Statesman and currently Tribune.


Cartoonist Blue Lou (left) and author, comic artist and graphic novelist Dr Nicola Streeten (right) speaking at LFB

Both our speakers had left a launch party to come and talk to LFB. This was during Women's History Month, which included celebrating the centenary of some women getting the vote for the first time in 1918 (women over 30 married to property-owning men).

Dr Nicola Streeten opened by asking, "Is there a problem with commissioning editors, is there a problem with attitudes?" She recalled being in the audience back at the 2009 London Comic Con, where the panel was "all men", and asking "Where are the women?" She described how (with one notable exception) everyone looked at her as if her question was somehow irrelevant.

Nicola wrote Billy, Me & You, a memoir in graphic novel format recounting the death of her child, her bereavement and recovery. She co-founded Laydeez do Comics, with a mission to support cartoonists, comic artists and graphic novelists whose work "focuses on the drama of the everyday". It's a space (open to women and men) to meet once a month in London and talk about comics. Laydeez do Comics now has international branches and its new prize for comics in progress, with Arts Council funding, is coming up. Her doctoral thesis is on A cultural history of feminist cartoons and comics in Britain from 1970 to 2010.

Nicola says it's often hard to find documentary evidence of the work of women cartoonists, comic artists and graphic novelists, let alone get in touch with them if you're a commissioning editor. In 2014, for example, the British Library put on an exhibition on comics, "Comics Unmasked, Art & Anarchy in the UK" - its biggest-ever exhibition in terms of attendance. Nicola's graphic novel, although in the exhibition, didn't even make it into the catalogue. Since then, there has been Comix Creatrix: 100 Women Making Comics, a 2016 exhibition at the House of Illustration round the corner from the BL and with the same (male) curator.

Why have women cartoonists been so invisible? Part of the problem seems to be the narrow definitions of what constitutes a cartoon or a comic - definitions usually dreamt up by (male) purists, curators and gatekeepers to the tiny world of professional cartooning.

Comics are supposed to be "sequential", telling a story, cartoons are supposed to tell their story in just one frame. Then there's the argument about whether a cartoonist is a "political cartoonist" or not. Apparently, award-winning cartoonist and illustrator Jackie Fleming "doesn't count" as a political cartoonist, as she doesn't cover party politics in her cartoons, but the politics of the everyday. But one of Jacky's best known cartoons was drawn in Leeds in 1978 when the "Yorkshire Ripper" Peter Sutcliffe was at large and Leeds Police told women to be home by 10 o'clock, and when there was a "mass craze" for martial arts and self-defence. It shows a young girl, who has just wrapped up a policeman in a rope, saying, "I learnt some of it at self-defence and the rest I made up myself". Says Nicola: "surely that's political."

Blue Lou and Dr Nicola Streeten

Dr Nicola Streeten (right) describes her hot-off-the-press book Inking Women, as Blue Lou (right) looks on.

With such invisibility, how are commissioning editors supposed to know who the women cartoonists are? For The Inking Women and her PhD, Nicola went to the British Cartoon Archive in Kent, a collections of cartoons in newspapers, an area which has traditionally been "a masculine endeavour".

In feminist history archives, however, Nicola found that women's magazines (not necessarily feminist) all had cartoons, and every single copy of the influential feminist magazine Spare Rib (1972-1993) had cartoons and comics in it. (Nicola notes that the glossy women's magazines of today are a "dying industry" - paid work in that sector now tends to be illustration not cartoons.)

We should "start documenting" the women cartoonists out there, says Nicola.

Excuses for the scarcity of women cartoonists that Nicola has heard include "women aren't good enough" and "women aren't funny" part of what Nicola described as the myth of the "feminist killjoy". What's funny is "culturally conditioned" - Nicola notes that wife-beater cartoon character Andy Capp was regarded as "hilarious" not so long ago, but attitudes have changed.

Then there's the question of "Who are the taste setters?" and "the role of profit". They used an image by Jamie Hewlett (he's the creator of Tank Girl) for the BL comics exhibition poster as it was thought that he was famous enough to sell tickets.

The audience had a good laugh at cartoons by Blue Lou as they went past on the screen during her talk. She introduced herself with "Hello I'm Blue Lou and I'm a political cartoonist... it feels like an AA meeting!" She noted that "Saudi Arabia had a recognised political cartoonist before this country did."

Blue does "traditional short-form single panel" cartoons, a form which is "a hybrid between journalism and art" - within a "very small gallery system" controlled mostly by men.

Blue Lou and Dr Nicola Streeten

Laughing at one of Blue Lou's cartoons (on screen)

As a lone parent, Blue has encountered "difficulties networking... a lot of stuff takes place in very breezy late night environments, or it did 10 years ago". She recalled being "up for one of the best-paid jobs with a national newspaper" in her field, being taken to a drink by that national newspaper, along with other candidates for their cartoonist gig including a man in his twenties based in London. Blue had to leave early to get back to Bristol and parenting. Can you guess who got the cartooning gig? One of Blue's first cartoons was for the "brilliant" Single Parent Action Network, through whom she got "childcare, childcare, childcare" and access to a crèche while "babysitting swapping" as a fine art graduate in St Paul's, Bristol.

She did "fine-arty bits" and then went on a British Council political cartoonists' exchange to South Africa with Steve Bell, for whom she later covered on the Guardian.

Narrow definitions of what constitutes a political cartoonist don't help the career progression of women in the field. The Political Cartoon Society's President Dr Tim Benson, for example, asked on the organisation's website, "Why in the UK have we never had a full-time female political cartoonist on one of our national newspapers? It is hard to understand why there are still none in 21st century Britain. (The Morning Star has female cartoonists, but they are unpaid so they do not qualify. Also, with a tiny circulation of 10,000, it cannot be considered a national newspaper.)" This is despite the Morning Star being available in newsagents, with working for it being a well-known career progression route for cartoonists who go onto work for the bigger nationals - one Morning Star cartoonist went on to work for the Telegraph, says Blue. Or women cartoonists don't count because they're not working for money "full-time".

It's almost as if the definition of what makes a political cartoonist has been tweaked to exclude women.Part of the problem, according to Blue, is that the political cartoon gallery scene is mostly a closed circle, where the weirdly male-dominated worlds of art dealing, media punditry on political cartoons and the Westminster bubble meet - "editors and journalists and MPs". The Political Cartoon Gallery deals in cartoons too: its President "sells the work of people I consider as friends" and Tory MPs "love to buy their own cartoons" (Jeffrey Archer recently auctioned off some of his political cartoon collection at Sotheby's.) Blue says "women would be scuppered were it not for the Cartoon Museum" in Holborn, whose curator is a woman.

Women cartoonists are also increasingly finding work online, where there are fewer gatekeepers. (Parts of the political cartoon establishment, of course, seem to take the view that these somehow don't count because they're not in print newspapers.) Blue "could never have done this without the internet" and now works for The Canary while Ella Bucknall's The Whip is now mostly internet-based rather than print.

How do you truly "get" the essence of the politicians you are caricaturing"? Blue quotes Steve Bell, who says that you have to "get close enough to smell them", which you can do from the House of Commons press gallery. She admits to having "stalked Cameron... with a pram". Of politicians, she says, "They'll ignore people photographing them but if they see you drawing them... aaargh!"

  • This article was modified on 25/04/18 as a result of a clarification emailed in by Blue Lou.