As an avid newspaper reader, I am constantly scrutinizing editorial cartoons for a ticklish take on the day's sobering topics.
Rarely do I see a cartoon drawn by a woman.
With our powers of observation sharpened by millennia of child-rearing and society shaping, and the wit and humor we've acquired to cope with those tasks, you'd think editors would be pounding on our doors to hand us paper and pen. So why aren't they?
This question emerged as a part of the latest outbreak of concern about the paucity of women on leading opinion pages. This one was triggered by a nasty row that broke into public in March between news commentator Susan Estrich and Michael Kinsley, editorial and opinion editor of the Los Angeles Times.
While onlookers were left divided about Estrich's zealous attempts to get a steady pundit slot from Kinsley, the incident did call attention to the dearth of female bylines on op-ed pages. Only about 24 percent of opinion writers at the biggest syndicates are women, according to a survey by Editor and Publisher magazine.
Less Than 4 Percent
As disappointing as that number is, consider this: Women are less than 4 percent of those same syndicates' editorial cartoonists.
They are Ann Telnaes, who draws the "Commentoon" for Women's eNews and until recently was syndicated by Tribune Media Services; Signe Wilkinson of the Philadelphia Daily News and the Washington Post Writers Group and Etta Hulme of the Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram and Newspaper Enterprise Association.
Ten years ago, the same three women constituted all the women drawing for major syndicates, according to Editor and Publisher.
"Since I was hired at the San Jose Mercury News in 1982, only one other woman has been hired as a full-time cartoonist at a major daily newspaper," Wilkinson wrote in the Winter 2004 Nieman Reports, "and that was in 1994 when I was hired at the Philadelphia Daily News."
Satire is a potent weapon. Editorial cartoonists use it to grind big axes, to prick the egos of the arrogant and to illuminate injustice, greed and dishonesty. It makes no sense, from a journalistic or societal perspective, that pens this powerful are in the hands of so few female cartoonists.
Few Women on Smaller Papers
There are female editorial cartoonists who work on a freelance basis or draw for smaller-circulation newspapers, but there aren't many of them, either. Just over 6 percent of members of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists are women.
Telnaes said the nature of the craft may pose special difficulties for women. "It's forceful, in your face. I don't think women were encouraged to do things like that, at least when I was growing up."
Strong women speaking their minds are not popular, said Telnaes, pointing to negative media coverage of Hillary Rodham Clinton and Teresa Heinz Kerry. The same resistance, she said, carries over to an opinionated woman drawing strong cartoons.
"Originally, I thought the coverage of Hillary and the type of woman she was had more to do with her personally, but now I'm beginning to see it's not her; it's the type of woman that America, and our media, have a problem with."
But more female cartoonists, says Telnaes, could help editorial pages hit far more funny bones. "I just spoke to editorial page editors at the American Press Institute, and what makes guys react to a cartoon is different from what makes a woman react."
One Full-Time Slot in Canada
Sue Dewar is editorial cartoonist of The Ottawa Sun. Her cartoons are syndicated to major Canadian dailies and mid-sized community newspapers. She estimates that five women currently contribute editorial cartoons to Canadian news organizations, but she is the only one with a full-time newspaper job -- a position that wasn't easy to come by.
"I went to the Globe, and I heard them talking about me behind the partition, saying they didn't want any women," Dewar recalls. "I went to the Star, where they told me I was too left-wing for them, although the paper itself is to the left." Ultimately, she met Andy Donato, editorial cartoonist at the Sun, at an art opening.
"He told me to come up with three cartoons before he finished his wine, and I beat him. I went home and inked up one of them and it went into a slot in the paper on the one day the staff cartoonist didn't work, when other cartoonists' work could then be featured." That break led to Dewar's being hired as the editorial cartoonist of The Calgary Sun, and later, at the newspaper in the Canadian capital. Dewar signs only her last name to her cartoons, so many of her readers don't realize she is female. Her cartoon depicting Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin admiring U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice's breasts, drawn as missiles, drew ire from readers who complained about "Mr." Dewar's sexism.
"I can get a little looser than some of the men can," she says.
Another outlet for social commentary was Dewar's four-year collaboration with Wiley Miller (who draws the nationally syndicated "Non Sequitur" comic strip) and later with Milt Priggee on "Us and Them," a strip syndicated by Universal Press in which "the idea was to irritate the opposite sex, really."
Dewar would draw the strip one day, Miller the next. Each would feature the other's characters and advance the situations created by Mars-Venus differences.
She's unhappy that chances for jobs like hers are few. "The newspaper industry has cut out so many cartoon jobs that there isn't a natural evolution for women to move into them," she says.
Cyberspace Offers More Openings
The internet has done a lot of good for a lot of cartoonists, Dewar says. "You can get your work out and people can see it. And you can be risque on the internet. You don't have to contend with newspaper readers who are trying not to show your horrible cartoons to their children!"
The internet and alternative publications have offered outlets for cartoonists such as Mikhaela B. Reid, a Brooklyn-based political cartoonist for the Boston Phoenix. Self-syndicated, she is featured as "cartooning's angry young woman" in the 2004 anthology Attitude 2: The New Subversive Alternative Cartoonists.
Reid's day job is as an information graphics designer at a daily newspaper.
Let's consider that Ã¢â‚¬â€ a feisty female cartoonist stuck behind the scenes drawing charts and graphs. What's wrong with that picture? The situation is an editorial cartoon in itself, speaking volumes about how our continent's female cartooning talent gets sidelined and wasted.