Where are the women cartoonists?

WHY ARE THERE so few women political 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 she could see appeared to be male.


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

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 Inking Woman: 250 Years of Women Cartoon and Comic Artists in Britain, and Blue Lou. Blue Lou has drawn cartoonists for the Morning Star, the Guardian and New Statesman, and now works for Tribune.

Nicola 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 is author of Billy, Me & You, a memoir in graphic novel format, recounting bereavement and recovery. She co-founded Laydeez do Comics - it's a space for cartoonists and comic artists (women and men) whose work "focuses on the drama of the everyday".

It's hard for commissioning editors to find documentary evidence of the work of women cartoonists, let alone contact them. In 2014, for example, Nicola's own work was in "Comics Unmasked, Art & Anarchy in the UK", the British Library's exhibition on comics - but it didn't make it into the catalogue.

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.

Why the invisibility of women cartoonists? There are narrow definitions of what a cartoon or comic is. 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 you're a "political cartoonist" or not. Award-winning Leeds-based cartoonist Jackie Fleming "doesn't count", as she doesn't cover party politics, but the politics of the everyday. Jackie's best-known cartoon dealt with women's self-defence when serial rapist Peter Sutcliffe, the "Yorkshire Ripper" was at large. "Surely that's political," Nicola says.

In feminist history archives Nicola found that women's magazines all had cartoons. Every copy of the influential feminist magazine Spare Rib (1972-1993) had cartoons and comics. We should "start documenting" women cartoonists, says Nicola.

Blue Lou opened by noting how "Saudi Arabia had a recognised political cartoonist before this country did." Blue does "short-form single-panel" cartoons, "a hybrid between journalism and art". She has to content with a "very small gallery system" controlled mostly by men acting as gatekeepers to editors.

As a lone parent, Blue has encountered difficulties networking. She recalled being "up for one of the best-paid jobs with a national newspaper" and being taken for an evening drink along with other candidates, including a twentysomething man based in London. Blue had to leave early to return to Bristol and parenting. Guess who got the cartooning gig?

Blue Lou and Dr Nicola Streeten

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

Narrow definitions of what's a political cartoonist don't help the career progression of women. The Political Cartoon Society's President Dr Tim Benson, for example, writes on the organisation's website, "The Morning Star has female cartoonists, but... with a tiny circulation of 10,000, it cannot be considered a national newspaper." This is despite the Morning Star being a well-known career progression route into the bigger nationals - one of its cartoonists went on to work for the Telegraph. It's almost as if the definition of a political cartoonist has been tweaked to exclude women.

Blue described the political cartoon gallery scene as mostly a closed circle, a weirdly male-dominated world of "editors and journalists and MPs". Women cartoonists are increasingly finding work online, where there are fewer gatekeepers. Blue "could never have done this without the internet".