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"Ladies First" Exhibit Focuses On Cartoon Innovators

A new exhibit at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Museum and Library highlights the contributions female cartoonists have made to the medium. Not just as artists, but as innovators. Alison Holm has more.

The exhibit “Ladies First” is part of celebration of the centennial of women getting the right to vote, and it starts with the suffrage movement. Co-curator Rachel Miller says female cartoonists in the early decades of the last century changed the popular perception of suffragettes, who had been portrayed as frumpy, strident, and out of touch, by showing them as average women with reasonable demands. 


One of the earliest cartoonists in the exhibit is Ohio-native Edwina Dumm, whose full page editorial cartoons appeared in the Columbus Monitor from 1915-1917.

“Her editorial cartoons covered a lot of different issues regarding suffrage. In particular, a lot of the time, she’s thinking about the relationship between different generations in the suffragette movement. So, how are younger suffragettes relating to older women in the movement and vice versa.”




While suffragist cartoonists were showing that their political sisters were Every Woman, other female cartoonists were drawing a new American woman. At the turn of the century the standard of American female beauty – serious, prim and carefully coiffed - was set by cartoonist Charles Dana Gibson. But co-curator and OSU associate professor Caitlin McGurk says that standard was challenged by newspaper illustrator Nell Brinkley.

“She brought in this whole new, way more free-flowing, very influenced by women’s liberation, idea of the woman who is untethered and liked to have fun and was independent. And it was so popular that – and you can see this in our current exhibit – there were even Nell Brinkley hair wavers that were licensed and made all over the country, that young women could buy and style their hair like her cartoon characters.”

Other female cartoonists mastered the art of marketing as well. Rose O’Neill, whose “Kewpie” cartoons became an American icon, marketed her own line of paper dolls in 1909. And Jackie Ormes – first nationally distributed African-American woman cartoonist licensed a line of dolls in the 1940’s based on her single panel cartoon “Patty Jo ‘n’ Ginger”. McGurk says it was the first upscale African American doll marketed in the U.S.

But most women were still only able to publish under male pseudonyms. Dalia Messick, the creator of “Brenda Star, Reporter” went by Dale Messick. The first female superhero “Miss Fury” was written and drawn by June Tarpe Mills – who dropped her first name to concealed her gender. By the 1950’s female cartoonists began to demand recognition.

“A group of women cartoonists got together and wrote to the National Cartoonists Society, which was the only and very large at that point professional society for cartoonists, demanding that the National Cartoonists Society either change their name to the National Mens Cartoonist Society or finally allow women in. And after that moment they opened their membership up to women and things really began to change.”

The underground comix movement opened up the field. Although women were still largely excluded from cartoon anthologies and mainstream publications, Miller says they began to form their own collectives with groups like Twisted Sisters.

“Women who were building a space for themselves, and that feeds directly into graphic novels, these long-form comic narratives, where women are telling their stories, telling deeply personal stories, and really expanding and pushing the medium forward.”

Miller says while society is no longer surprised to discover that women draw, female cartoonists continue to push for more diversity, finding a place for all voices.

“People like Lynda Barry or Alison Bechdel who both have won MacArthur genius grants; they got their start working at alternative newspapers and feminist newsletters, carving out a space to tell stories about queer women, to tell stories about growing up biracial, for example. So, having to kind of carve out and find that space we have two of the most innovative cartoonists working today.”

The “Ladies First” exhibit opened this weekend at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Museum and Library on the Ohio State University campus, and runs through May 2020.

A native of Chicago, naturalized citizen of Cincinnati and resident of Columbus, Alison attended Earlham College and the Ohio State University. She has equal passion for Midwest history, hockey and Slavic poetry.