Women and British political cartoonists
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.)
The old cliché of women not having a sense of humour or not being funny just does not stand. In the UK, there are many good female comedians, gag cartoonists and wits. Other countries around the world have some great women political cartoonists such as, for example, Cathy Wilcox in Australia and Ann Telnaes in America, but not here. Amazingly, considering their non-existent record on women's rights, there are even a couple working successfully in Saudi Arabia. British women have found it difficult, nigh impossible to break the glass ceiling of this genre.
How long has this male monopoly existed? If we go back as far as prehistoric Britain, some consider cavemen drew the very first political cartoons. It now turns out that ‘caveman’ paintings are a misnomer. New research has revealed that these primitive drawings were actually painted predominately by women. According to recent analysis of ancient handprints of cave paintings, archaeologists have discovered that three-quarters of the handprints were female. So since time immemorial women have suffered from a built-in male bias in visual satire.
From all the great cartoonists of the past, such as Hogarth, Gillray, Rowlandson, Tenniel through Low, Strube, Illingworth, Vicky to today's Brookes, Brown and Bell, to name but a few, there is not a single female name amongst them. I could mention another hundred leading political cartoonists from the past but not one female one. “Hold on a minute!”, I hear you say, “what about Posy Simmonds?” Well, I grant you that Posy is easily Britain's most famous female cartoonist but she has always been a social commentator and has never attempted political satire. I even asked her why there were not any women political cartoonists and she replied indignantly that she had been asked that same question many times over and did not know the answer. She went on to say: “ I've been asked this question a hundred times. Somebody must have done a PhD on this (they haven't). The question now bores me and I find it quite tiresome, but please don't quote me.”
Of course, for the vast majority of the 20th century Fleet Street remained a male bastion not only for cartoonists but for journalists, too. This situation was not unique, and was reflected across other professions in British society. The first female political correspondent (Leah Beloff) was not appointed until 1964. Colin Seymour-Ure, who has written widely about the British press, remembers when his journalist father left the Reporters' Room at The Times in about 1970: “They had never had a female reporter since my father joined in 1928.” It was not until the late 1980s that female editors began to be appointed for the first time. However, when it comes to our first female political cartoonist, we are still waiting.
The earliest political cartoons by a woman published in Britain that I could find were by the Australian Ruby Lindsay. Ruby was the wife of the radical Daily Herald cartoonist, Will Dyson, and sister of Norman Lindsay, who is considered to have been one of Australia's greatest cartoonists and artists. Although primarily an illustrator, she occasionally helped finish off some of her husband's cartoons as her drawing style was almost identical to his. Her ambitions primarily lay in painting, but, possibly because women's suffrage was one of the earliest political subjects that women addressed en masse, she regularly produced political cartoons which, discretely initialled, were published in Christabel Pankhurst’s The Suffragette. Ruby also drew artwork for posters supporting socialist causes, an interest she shared with her husband. Sadly, after the women's right to vote battle had been finally won, she became a victim of the Spanish Flu epidemic and died in 1919. Just under twenty years later, another Australian cartoonist Antonia Yeoman starting drawing cartoons for Punch magazine. She was strictly a gag cartoonist, having told an interviewer that not being interested in politics made it more difficult for her to come up with ideas for her cartoons. Despite this, she felt the need to work under a male pseudonym, ‘Anton’, as even women gag cartoonists were frowned upon at the time. When some readers of Punch discovered her gender, it did not go down well. Anton later remembered: “I was told a couple of bishops had given up Punch when I started drawing for them.”
Sally Artz was another female gag cartoonist who worked for Punch, and, like Anton,admitted to having no interest in politics: “It is clear to me that women cartoonists are mostly uninterested in politics, and women politicians can’t draw and are not very good at humour!” This seems to be a common thread with most women who turn their hand to cartooning. Nicola Jennings, who has, uniquely, been a political caricaturist for the Guardian and the Observer for nearly 30 years, believes politics is too serious a subject to be made a joke of: “I don't want to spend my day drawing liars and crooks. My male counterparts seem to know it's all a game. I'm interested in exposing the truth, but I prefer to do it through caricature.” Maybe this reasoning is why there are plenty of women expressing themselves through other forms of satire, be it gag, strip or social commentary cartoons, graphic novels and stand-up comedy.
Despite Punch readers remaining reticent about female cartoonists even up to the 1970s, the magazine decided, in March 1972, to recognise the growing feminist movement in Britain by producing the first women's issue of the magazine. This was to feature an all-female cast of writers, editors and cartoonists. Sally Artz was given the honour of producing a full colour cartoon for the front cover. However, at the last moment, fearing a backlash from its mainly middle-aged male audience, the editor backtracked and relegated her cartoon to an inside page with the front cover going instead to Michael Ffolkes. To rub salt into the wound, Ffolkes drew a misogynist cartoon. According to Sally Artz it was; “…more Donald McGill than Punch with a huge, bosomy woman (accompanied by tiny hen-pecked husband) being shown the wine label, in a restaurant, by the leering wine waiter. We were all pretty pissed off by the whole MCP [male chauvinist pig] attitude.” Indeed, many editors were frightened by the feminist movement at the time. Punch cartoonist John Jensen tried to sell his own Women in Caricature book project in the 1970s and “was greeted with slack jaws and total incomprehension by the all-male publishers - all dead-scared - then - of feminism.”
The last female cartoonist to try and break the trenchant attitudes of Fleet Street was Martha Richler, who worked under the gender-neutral sounding pseudonym 'Marf'. In 2003, in an attempt to attract more female readers, she was employed to replace Patrick Blower on the Evening Standard by the paper's then new female editor, Veronica Wadley. The appointment of Marf was said to have “caused a collective raised eyebrow at the Evening Standard’s Kensington newsroom.” Ironically, Wadley did not want Marf to continue the paper's great tradition of political cartooning, but instead instructed her to focus on drawing light social observation. Marf acquiesced but remained indignant: “I wanted to do both darker subjects and lighter ones. I often presented much darker and more political ideas to the editor. It was a source of great frustration to me that I wasn’t given the freedom to switch between darker themes and lighter ones.” This lighter material did not go down well with her colleagues, who she claimed “did not like the feminine character of her work”. Marf not only experienced hostility towards her by colleagues because she was female, but also because she had been employed by a female editor. Marf was also taken aback by what she saw as subconscious patronization by her colleagues, who felt they had to explain things to her because being a woman she would not understand. “I felt extra pressure to prove myself,” she says, “as they assumed I was less intelligent and less capable because I was female.” She even found that every time she picked up the phone other staff members assumed she was a secretary. In May 2004, she even sued the Daily Telegraph for libel when they falsely claimed that her ideas were thought up by backbench executives at the Evening Standard. Wadley, who was never a fan of the cartoon from the outset, dismissed Marf a year later and sacrilegiously replaced the cartoon, which had been there since 1927, with a celebrity photograph.
Women have fared much better than the men when it has come to national symbols in cartoons. This has been a favourite tool for cartoonists when symbolising a nation state. Sir Bernard Partridge and Sir John Tenniel have probably been the most famous exponents of this. Female figures have, in the past, represented the majority of the major Nations, for example, Marianne the national symbol for the French Republic, Germania for Germany, Britannia for Britain and the Statue of Liberty for the United States. Even Mother Russia was occasionally used for tragic events, a rather more sympathetic figure than the Russian Bear. Many of these symbols in the modern world are now considered somewhat passe. In the 1920s, David Low sought to revitalise and modernise Britain's national symbols by introducing Joan Bull, a slim flapper, as a more topical combination of old John Bull and Britannia. Unlike his creation Colonel Blimp, Joan Bull appeared rather bland and as a result never captured the public's imagination as a contemporary symbol of Britain. Today Britannia is still occasionally used by cartoonists as we have seen in previous anthologies of this book.
Spitting Image creator, Roger Law, called political cartooning an unfair art form. This is because cartoonists generally react to the news negatively by ridiculing those involved. Women tend to be pragmatic
, - more proactive than reactive - and therefore less reliant on cruelty and derision. Maybe this is why more women than ever are going into politics to achieve something positive, rather than consider a career as a cartoonist sniping from the side-lines. Nicola Jennings believes there is some truth in this. Like other cartoonists I have spoken to, she believes that editors frustratingly tend to prefer the more aggressive male approach to political cartooning and expect women to draw in the same macho testosterone-fuelled manner as men. Jennings thinks the built-in male bias within the press has led to a lack of confidence amongst women in promoting themselves. She feels women need to be themselves and focus on subject matters that interest them. According to Andy Davey: “It's a very aggressive job, and I suppose women are in general less overtly aggressive than men. It may be that fewer of them seek a career in such an aggressive field. And there are precious few political cartoonists.” Steve Bright is of the belief that editors, “given a hypothetical choice between a male and a female cartoonist of equal drawing ability, would believe the male to be more ruthless, and therefore make the better political satirist. I have to say that this does not necessarily tie in with my general life's experiences... but there are some paths I hesitate to tread.” Morten Morland thinks this is true and is due to ”the style of drawing which has become associated with cartoons. I don’t think editors are brave enough in trying alternative styles. Cartoonists like Ann Telnaes prove that a more stylized/feminine line can be just as biting as the angrier ink splat approach.” Brian Adcock concurs. He feels that “the aggressive nature of satire, which political cartooning falls into, has traditionally put women off”.
The machismo factor also spills over into the social side of cartooning. When political cartoonists get together it tends to centre around some serious drinking. “They are invariably boozy, blokey affairs,” says Rick Brookes, “and women attending such events are not only unimpressed but feel quite left out.” Peter Schrank agrees this can be off-putting for women: “I’m very fond of many of my colleagues and enjoy their company, but I’m always aware of a strong sense of hierarchy; there’s a lot of male competition and jostling for position. It’s quite a macho scene.” Consequently, both Nicola Jennings and former strip cartoonist, Maggie Ling, feel the very 'clubby nature' of the political cartoon scene in this country is disconcerting for women.
While of course talking in generalities, another difference is that, unlike women, male cartoonists tend to be obsessive about politics and are often all-consumed by it. Women tend to appear less in sympathy with the Punch and Judy knockabout politics we see at Westminster and look towards the themes and issues that are political in the sense of, say, 'feminism' and sub-categories of it. Maggie Ling, partner of political cartoonist Peter Schrank, believes a lot of political cartoons comment on the struggle for, and maintaining of, power. This is something, in her opinion, that men are much more interested in than women. According to Andy Davey: “There is a nerdy quality to political cartooning. You have to know everything about who said what to whom (gossip) and also about the personal peccadilloes of every minor fool who inhabits Westminster. And about policy. And about history. And about political theory. Now, I'm not saying that women are less good at understanding all that, but it might just be that - statistically - women are less nerdy than men; less prone to surround themselves with the safe walls of arcane fact and knowledge. Men of a certain disposition - political cartoonists - like to be knowledgeable and then to use that knowledge to stab at politicians from behind their safe shield.”
Former Today and Sun cartoonist, Dave Gaskill, believes women are certainly wired differently. He not only feels they have a different sense of humour than men, but also thinks the outlook between men and women begins at a very early age. “Males are more aggressive in general and political cartooning as practiced encapsulates this aggression,” he says. “Think back to early schooldays and your drawings back then. Boys would have planes crossing the sky dropping bombs willy-nilly on the tanks and matchstick soldiers at the base of the page. Explosions and strafing, all drawn in a joyous delight of sheer havoc. Look across at the next girl’s masterpiece: a blue strip of sky across the top of the paper and just below a bright spiky yellow sun shining down on a four-windowed, two-storey house. On the path leading from the front door that divides the emerald green garden with its bright flowers and holding hands, stand the mummy and daddy with a happy little child. Nothing nasty here, unlike some of those savage political cartoons. Whether this is the real reason for the female scarcity in our treasured editorial page spot, who knows? Perhaps there should be an enquiry to investigate this issue. Headed by either Leveson or Chilcot. By the time they report their findings there won’t be any print editorial spots for the ladies to fill anyway.”
Realising that the chances of actually earning a living as a political cartoonist are extremely limited may be another reason women avoid this profession and look elsewhere for careers where they stand a better chance of gaining employment. For example, there are more jobs available in the Cabinet than there are as a full-time political cartoonist. In reality, there are only six full-time political cartoonists, and they are Steve Bell, Peter Brookes, Christian Adams, Dave Brown, Patrick Blower and Mac. All the other dozen or so cartoonists fill in around them when they are not working or are employed to do one cartoon a week for a Sunday newspaper. So, as according to Scott Clissold: “The comics and illustration world is packed full of female artists and creators as there are more opportunities and more work about.”
At the start of this essay I mentioned there were a number of female cartoonists working for the Morning Star. Some of them claim they have been unable to gain employment on a national newspaper because of the misogynistic attitude of editors. (Both Bob Moran and Ben Jennings started on the Morning Star and now both have regular work on national newspapers.) I disagree with them and Martin Rowson, who feels it is “entrenched sexism” on the part of those who commission the cartoons. Peter Brookes does not put it down to sexism: “In my opinion, there is no appropriate answer to this. It just hasn't happened. We have women editors and senior staff. So I don't think it's sexism on behalf of those making appointments. Women just don't seem to be putting themselves forward in the UK. The States has the wonderful Ann Telnaes (The Washington Post and elsewhere), who is more vicious on Trump than anyone... so why not here? No reason.” I therefore do not believe that gender plays a role today. The hard truth is that these women are simply not good enough. (Martin Rowson disagrees with me, but would not name one who is.) Their problem is that the bar has been set at an extremely high level and as we see with the likes of Peter Brookes and Steve Bell, cream always rises to the top. If you have the talent, both in terms of sublime draughtsmanship and political acumen, you will undoubtedly succeed in getting a position on a leading national broadsheet. Scott Clissold confirms my views: “Peter Brookes on The Times and Steve Bell on the Guardian are brilliant political cartoonists, who happen to be men. Newspapers are pretty cutthroat. If there were better political cartoonists, female or male, knocking on the door with better political cartoons (good luck finding any!), I’m pretty certain they’d be given a chance.” It is therefore obvious that those women who aspire to this will have to up their game. I leave the last word on this subject to Sally Artz: “Maybe, in the future, there will be a female Peter Brookes. She had better hurry up, before the last newspaper dies!”
Despite the dearth of female political cartoonists, we now have more women in prominent positions in politics in the UK and around the world than ever before. In the UK we are spoilt for choice. Apart from having our second female Prime Minister in Theresa May, we have the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, in Wales the Plaid Cymru leader, Leanne Wood, Democratic Unionist leader and most recent first minister of Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster and Caroline Lucas is leader of the Green Party. Even UKIP had a female leader in Diane James, albeit for only 18 days. Of all these women, Christian Adams finds Nicola Sturgeon particularly open to caricature with her “masculine face, large chin and her ‘Krankiesque’ pudding basin haircut.” Abroad there is most notably German Chancellor Angela Merkel as well as other women leaders in numerous other countries around the world. When planning this essay last year, I was hoping to add America's first female President to this list but, sadly, it was not to be. Finally, we must not forget that cartoonists have been depicting our female Monarch for the last 64 years, Queen Elizabeth II. The Queen has largely remained outside of the political affray. Because of this and social mores of the time, she was treated, until recently, with extreme deference by cartoonists, irrespective of her being female. Cartoonists tend to treat her these days with a reasonable amount of affection, unlike the rest of her dysfunctional family. Although the deference has gone completely, ridicule of her has more to do with the outdated institution of the Monarchy rather than her or her gender.
So what different challengers do cartoonists face these days in drawing female politicians in comparison to their male equivalents? Some cartoonists welcome the challenge. To start with, male politicians today are less distinguishable than in the past. For example, they could be identified by what they smoked, be it a cigar or a pipe or what they carried or wore, like an umbrella, hat or raincoat. According to Bob Moran: “In some ways, female politicians are easier for cartoonists. Unlike their male counterparts, women politicians do not all wear the same suits, shoes and hairstyles. So there is more to differentiate them beyond just their faces.” Scott Clissold has stated that he really enjoys drawing female politicians as “I’m sick of drawing grey old farts in dark suits so the more women in politics the better.” Morten Morland is of the same opinion: “In many ways female politicians can be more interesting - even easier to draw - because of their wardrobe, for example. Not always in black or blue suits, they often have more elements to work with than just facial features. One frustration is that they tend to change hairstyles more often! So for someone like me who does not necessarily create 'characters' but draw caricatures from the most recent reference, that complicates things.”
However, this is not the case for all cartoonists. Mac, for one, prefers drawing men with their prominent distinctive noses, wrinkles and big ears. As regards women, he has always found it “easier to draw big fat elderly ones with lived-in faces, baggy eyes and distinctive hairdos then those that are young, sexy and attractive.” Mac was once asked by his editor at the Daily Mail, David English, to draw a cartoon featuring Elizabeth Taylor, but the finished caricature looked so unlike her that he had to put a label on the caricature with her name. Mac even struggled with Margaret Thatcher but says he was saved by her handbag and hairdo. Mac actually preferred drawing her husband, Dennis, until at one cocktail party, the real Dennis Thatcher staggered up to him swilling his drink and called him a “bastard” for always portraying him as a drunk. Mac noted that, ironically, Thatcher appeared somewhat the worse for wear for drink!
There are certainly more pitfalls to portraying women in cartoons than men. Andy Davey has found that the more lines he adds when caricaturing a woman the more masculine they become, which, along with the temptation to portray them as ugly or witchlike, can lead to accusations of sexism. Ridiculing women in a cartoon can also be construed as ungentleman-like. For example, Christian Adams has received a lot of criticism from angry readers who have accused him of being cruel to Theresa May by drawing her with a 'wonky nose'. In comparison, he has never had any negative feedback from accentuating male politicians' noses. Following on, Bob Moran believes that “There is an idea that a cartoonist should be 'kinder' to a female politician, suggesting that women are more easily offended when somebody mocks their appearance. This line of thought is, of course, sexist. However, if a cartoonist were to apply exactly the same approach to a woman as they would a man, exaggerating or underlining certain physical attributes like the size of their nose, breasts or bottom, they are just as likely to be accused of sexism. Walking that tightrope is perhaps the biggest challenge presented by female politicians.” Peter Brookes feels it is important to treat both sexes the same: "A big challenge is not to hold back out of a sense of, for want of a better word, chivalry. Thank God Theresa May is so politically awful that the thought doesn't enter your head. But apart from her (and Arlene Foster!), I still find women politicians harder to draw. I'm perfectly glad not to have to draw Hilary Clinton, say, or Yvette Cooper on a regular basis. Don't know why!" However, Scott Clissold feels the need to tread carefully: “When attacking a politician’s policies I think you can get away with drawing a male politician advocating those policies more crudely than if it were a female politician. There seems to be a very fine line where overdoing the cruelty/crudity with a female politician has the danger of creating the opposite effect of what was intended. The last thing you want is the reader feeling sympathy for the politician and missing the point of the cartoon. From a technical point of view drawing cartoons of women in general is slightly more difficult as with every scratch of the pen you age them instantly and can lose a likeness quite quickly. Unlike men where the more wrinkly and scruffy the better!”
It is interesting to look back and see how portraying women in politics has changed since electing our first female Prime Minister nearly 40 years ago. Cartoonists appear to have been far gentler in the past with Mrs Thatcher than they are with Theresa May today. Steve Bell thinks Mrs Thatcher received a very easy ride: “Thatcher as the first female Prime Minister caused problems for cartoonists who were all men. She definitely benefitted from a kind of misplaced deference that men feel they owe women and many male cartoonists’ depictions of that sex were less than subtle at the best of times, veering between waspie-waisted, big-boobed stereotyping and excessive reverence. She was able to build her own image by cleverly embracing criticism of her. For instance, she played up being called the 'Iron lady’ and used it to project strength. Thatcher was also misunderstood satirically. She was portrayed, particularly in Spitting Image, as a woman with balls, which was shocking, not for its devastating political penetration, but for its blundering misogyny.... There was an innate madness about her that my colleagues just didn't get!”
Some cartoonists have gained the belief over the years that women politicians actually actively encourage cartoonists to portray them in a way that suits them politically. According to the late Les Gibbard, they “skilfully use war paint, ever-changing hairstyles and smart clothes to dictate their image. Like all beauty the result is bland. Hacking through this camouflage to find the real woman can be a tough job for a cartoonist.” Margaret Thatcher's astute identification with her handbag was positively weaponised by cartoonists. In comparison, Theresa May has done the same with her footwear. Steve Bell has noticed how, at one Party Conference, she deliberately showed off her Leopard print kitten heels to the press.
Although the majority of cartoonists are disappointed that Theresa May struggles on as our Prime Minister for the foreseeable future, she at least offers them plenty of material for their daily output. May has also added fuel to their fire by revealing that she hates her own nose and compares herself to Elizabeth I. Brian Adcock thinks her nose is “dead weird like an upturned hull of a ship with long unusual nostrils. I portray her with her nose pointing upwards because she is a Tory, even though in reality it doesn't.” Steve Bell finds Theresa May a “very striking women who visually puts herself out there, which luckily doesn't always work out for her. Her demeanour can be awkward which can be visually disturbing at times.” When the scary clown craze spread across Britain last year, Steve decided to portray her as one: “Why a clown?” Steve asks himself, “I don't know. Maybe it was those pantooloony trousers she occasionally wears. She does have a white pale face and her stark eyes and mouth stand out clearly.” Christian Adams thinks he sees signs of her vulnerability both in the way she frequently changes her hairstyle and in her attempts to cover up, with heavy blue eyeliner, the huge 'glorious' bags under her eyes.
A number of cartoonists have enjoyed comparing May to Thatcher and find that the main difference between the two comes down to the steely confident image of the latter compared to the unease and vulnerability of the former. According to Peter Brookes, the differences are huge: “They are like chalk and cheese. Whether you agreed with them or not, Thatcher, like Corbyn, held strong beliefs. Does May believe in anything? Search me.” Scott Clissold believes Theresa May lacks the authority that Thatcher seemed to have:”With May you can draw her unsteady, panicky, not quite sure of herself as she's still finding her feet. She has these great long legs so it’s like watching a giraffe learn to ski. Whereas that unsteadiness wouldn’t work for a Thatcher cartoon.” I leave the last word
s on this subject to Dave Simonds: “The differences between Thatcher and May are quite marked and it's very interesting to compare how they are conveyed in cartoons. Thatcher was a conviction politician, totally convinced she was right. I don't recall seeing many cartoons of her showing any hint of doubt carrying out her policies. Thatcher was portrayed as the Iron Lady who was an implacable force, whereas the portrayals of Theresa May up to now have shown her greatly weakened by the election result while struggling with the Herculean problems of Brexit. She did try to reinvent herself as ‘Maggie Version 2.0.’ by calling a snap General Election in June 2017 and we all know how that turned out!”