Funny Ladies at The New Yorker: Cartoonists Then and Now

by Matthew Innis |

With the vote won in 1920, and a new found freedom, many women moved to the city to find work. In 1925, journalist Harold Ross and his wife Jane Grant, a reporter for the New York Times, created The New Yorker, a humor magazine for the urban elite. When Ross began to look for talent to contribute to this new endeavor, he sought the best. Some of the best included cartoonists who were women; with the support of The New Yorker, they became some of the most heralded cartoonists the art form has known. Ethel Plummer was the New Yorker’s first woman cartoonist- her work appeared in The New Yorker’s inaugural issue. More women soon followed her: Helen Hokinson, Alice Harvey, Barbara Shermund, Mary Petty, Roberta MacDonald, Doris Matthews, to name a few. Nevertheless, the number of women was always much lower than men.

Until recently, it was generally thought that women did not have a sense of humor, nor were they able to create humorous work. This is in part because for decades, editors at most publications did not hire without gender bias, they were not as forward thinking as Harold Ross. In addition, our culture has not been supportive of women to be creative or to be funny. It was universally assumed that they were neither.

Following the Roaring Twenties and into the middle of the last decade, there was a drop-off of women cartoonists creating for the magazine. Perhaps this was due to a variety of factors: the Great Depression, World War II and a national trend towards conventionality. Women returned to traditional roles.  But much began to change in the nineteen sixties and early nineteen seventies in the US, a change that included an increase in feminist thought and a measure of freedom for women. Under senior editor William Shawn (who had replaced Ross after his death), The New Yorker hired a new cartoon editor in 1973, Lee Lorenz.  In an interview, Lorenz said that he was never looking for “women cartoonists,” he was looking for new ways to express humor. Under his editorship, following a decade when there were no women drawing cartoons at the magazine, Lorenz brought in three women in the 1970s: Nurit Karlin, Roz Chast and myself. He proceeded to hire more women in the 80’s and 90’s until he retired.

In art, when the standards for what is considered  good  are broadened to include more approaches, it leads to more diversity of thought and more creativity. That’s what happened under Lee Lorenz and Harold Ross’ editorship. In addition, the increase of women cartoonists under their editorships happened during times of positive cultural change in attitudes towards women. This is happening now. As the result of an effort led by senior editor David Remnick and newly hired cartoon editor, Emma Allen, The New Yorker now has a greater percentage of women cartoonists than ever.

This exhibition is a commemoration of some of the women who drew cartoons for The New Yorker past and present. It’s a celebration of their creativity and fortitude as they pushed past cultural stereotypes to create humor and offer the world laughter from all points of view.

-Liza Donnelly, Curator, “Funny Ladies at The New Yorker: Cartoonists Then and Now”

Where: Society of Illustrators, New York (NY)

When: July 24 – October 13, 2018

Society of Illustrators

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