Getting the Joke

It was a visual Conversation with Friends this month, as illustrator Liza Donnelly ’73 and CBS News’ John Dickerson ’87 came together with members of the Sidwell Friends community for a talk about cartoons (the signature one-panels from The New Yorker in particular), feminism, and Donnelly’s latest book, Very Funny Ladies, The New Yorker’s Women Cartoonists, a history of women cartoonists at the magazine since 1925.  

Donnelly, a longtime cartoonist and writer for The New Yorker and other national outlets, began her connection with the vaunted magazine earlier than most. After all, most 7-year-olds don’t skim high-brow journals for fun. 

“Like any good upper-middle-class household, my parents got The New Yorker,” Donnelly said. “My mother loved their cartoons. One day, I was about 7 and was home sick from school. I started tracing the cartoons, and that made her smile.”

The smiles continued through Donnelly’s time at Sidwell Friends, though she says she wasn’t the best student. “People knew I loved to draw,” she said, “and they let me do that.” 

Donnelly and Dickerson talked about The New Yorker’s earlist female cartoonists, whose humor was often more subversive than that of their male counterparts in the early to mid-20th century. “Some of it was sexy,” Donnelly said of the men. “And some of it was sexist or racist, too.”

As time moved on, though, the cartoons slowly became written by only men; by the 1960s, the magazine had no female cartoonists.

“My feeling is that after the Depression and heading into World War II, the country got more domesticated and started following the ‘rules’ more closely when it came to gender roles,” Donnelly said. “The culture was changing, and the culture said that women weren’t funny. Being funny was a man’s job.”

In 1973, when the magazine hired a new cartoon editor, more women—eventually including Donnelly—made it back onto the pages. 

“I didn’t think about gender; I didn’t want to be a ‘woman cartoonist,’” she said. “I still don’t think of myself as a ‘female cartoonist’—I’m just a cartoonist. So I just plugged ahead. I was aware there weren’t many women, but I think I saw it as a challenge.”

As times changed, so did Donnelly’s approach to her work. “I realized I could make all the protagonists in my cartoons women, because why not?” she said. Her cartoons also began to reflect current events, though she does not consider herself a political or editorial cartoonist. One cartoon from 2001 shows a little girl asking her father, “Daddy, can I stop being worried now?”

“That’s from 2001, but it could be from last week,” Dickerson said. 

After decades of professional work, Donnelly’s art continues to evolve. She now specializes in live drawing; she has attended news and cultural events and created work in real time (including while running the New York Marathon; “I took walk breaks,” she said). As the nature of technology, culture, and art shifts, Donnelly will be there to get it on paper—because why not?
 

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