Not a Funny Situation  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June/July 2005

Not a Funny Situation   

In the shrinking field of editorial cartoonists, women are scarce.

By Katrina Altersitz
Altersitz is a former AJR editorial assistant.     


After Carol Yvette Piette graduates from the University of Wisconsin this year, she wants to work as an editorial cartoonist. She has good credentials: a fine arts degree and her status as a finalist for the 2003 Society of Professional Journalists' Mark of Excellence Award for editorial cartooning.

Piette isn't that worried about finding a job, but maybe she should be. Consider the case of Pam Winters, a graduate of the University of California, San Diego, who syndicates her cartoons to several papers in California. The 33-year-old is putting her art aside because she's had difficulty earning a living from cartooning. She's spent the last few years applying for--but not getting--editorial cartoonists' jobs at various newspapers. Breaking into that field seems to be even tougher for women than getting a chance to write commentary, the subject of a recent controversy that flared after columnist Susan Estrich took Los Angeles Times Editorial and Opinion Editor Michael Kinsley to task for not publishing enough women writers.

"I've not felt discriminated against as a woman as much as I've felt discriminated against as a cartoonist," Winters says. "They don't respect the position."

According to the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, 25 out of its 357 members are women. When the subject comes up in conversations with cartoonists such as Winters or media veterans such as University of Missouri journalism professor Geneva Overholser, three prominent female editorial cartoonists are mentioned. The first is Signe Wilkinson, the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning and the only woman doing that job full time for a large daily (the Philadelphia Daily News). The second is Ann Telnaes, the only other female Pulitzer-winning cartoonist, who recently left Tribune Media Services for Cartoonists & Writers Syndicate. The third is Etta Hulme of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram; she is now semiretired, drawing a few times a week.

Why so few women cartoonists? Some say it's a position that by its nature attracts men. Others cite the lack of opportunities. There isn't an overabundance of cartooning positions, and those who occupy them stay in place for a long time. The market for syndicated work is tight. And some say that men do most of the hiring and tend to be more comfortable with their own gender.

"Women are less likely to stand up and make one strong, assertive statement," Overholser says. "That's a stereotype with some truth to it. As with much else, we need to encourage people early on in high school to think about journalism and cartooning."

AAEC President Matt Davies disagrees. "We're seeing for the first time more than a handful of cartoonists who are women with beautiful portfolios," he says. "It's just with some sadness that I see them coming into a field that I would not say is a growth industry, but probably never was."

To cartoonist Jennifer Camper, the problem begins with the internal power structure. "It's because the people who make the decisions about who gets printed are usually men, and they're looking for cartoons that are about them," she says.

Many cartoonists have instead turned to self-syndication via the Internet. Take Stephanie McMillan, 40. She works at a weekly in southern Florida, but not as a cartoonist, though the paper used to run her work at times. She self-syndicates her cartoons in the hopes of building a career as a full-time cartoonist/artist while she stays at her current job, typing calendar listings.

"Though gender may play some role, all cartoonists are having a hard time due to the tight economy, extreme cost-cutting by publications and competition for very few paid opportunities in the cartooning world," McMillan wrote in an e-mail to AJR. "We're forced to be creative in finding new ways to market our work, and new venues and ways of publishing."

While many newspapers have their own staff cartoonists, others rely on independent cartoonists and those whose work is syndicated by outlets such as Tribune Media Services and Universal Press Syndicate. Wilkinson, who is affiliated with the Washington Post Writers Group, is the only woman whose work is distributed by a major syndicate.

As for staff cartoonists, their tenure tends to be lengthy. And when they retire or die, papers often hold the position open for quite a while. Five years after Jeff MacNelly's death, the Chicago Tribune still has not replaced him.

"I think women are, like a lot of people are, too smart to go into..an imperiled industry," Wilkinson says. But there's more to the story, she adds: Many women "are less comfortable picking fights and using an attack medium to make a point."

The job does indeed require a certain amount of "machismo," says Christine Bertelson, editorial page editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. In an e-mail interview, she said, "Sometimes that manifests itself as 'Show me where you draw the line and I'll cross it.'" The job requires "a strong ego, stubbornness and willingness--even eagerness--to risk getting your behind kicked on a daily basis.... Perhaps," she added, "that combination of things tends to discourage women and attract men." (In April, the Post-Dispatch hired Robert J. Matson to replace editorial cartoonist John Sherffius, who resigned in 2003.)

Still, the drawings of women could be an asset to editorial pages, says Bob Giles, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. "It would seem to me that..having a woman's perspective reflected in an editorial cartoon would be something a newspaper would want."

"It's one thing if I did a cartoon on women's rights," says Baltimore Sun cartoonist Kevin Kallaugher. "But if I see a cartoon by Ann or Signe, it's a little bit different... If you deal with issues really important to you, you're going to do good work."

But Wilkinson wants more than just recognition for her gender.

"There will always be women's issues because we really are different in some fundamental ways," she says. "Therefore, problems that women face will not every time--but from time to time--be different from the problems that men face. As far as that's true, it's good to have women describing what the experience is like." But, she adds, "I don't think women should be defined as only describing that."

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