Local Women’s Museum exhibit examines roles through the years
Anna Frost | Downtown News
Nearly 100 years of comics, all featuring and written by women, sit behind the doors of the Women’s Museum of California, located at 2730 Historic Decatur Rd #104 at Liberty Station in Point Loma.
Running until September 1, “Wonder Women: On Paper and Off” is an extensive collection of flappers, super heroines, mischievous teenage girls and other bold women from across the decades. In addition to the exhibit, the museum will hold two, two-hour panel discussions in which industry professionals will discuss their experiences as women working in the comic industry, according to the website.
The exhibit, in line with the museum’s overall goal, looks at the work of women of the past and present and explores their connection.
“Our mission is to preserve the past and inspire the future … This show looks at women in the comic industry starting in about 1900 and going until today, and it’s kind of reinstating this idea of preserving what has been done and how it has inspired what we have today,” said Kathleen Adam, art and programs director and exhibit curator.
The exhibit occupies the majority of the museum, leading viewers through a timeline of comics from newspapers and books that address and reflect social and political issues of their period. However, the women who wrote and illustrated these comics struggled against a strong gender bias for decades.
“Women really had a hard time breaking through the glass ceiling within the comic industry, just like in the majority of the industries, and it’s another example of women having to break through barriers and they did that by perseverance,” Adam said, adding, “We want it to be open and kind of more organic so that people can ask questions and kind of explore.”
Though all of the comics in the exhibit tell the story of women’s journey across the decades, several starkly reflect the struggles and triumphs of specific eras. The first piece displayed, a newspaper comic from 1914 titled, “Dimples,” was discovered in a thrift shop. Artist Grace Drayton’s comic features a little girl scolding her puppy as it knocks her wagon over in pursuit of a well-spoken rabbit. Not only is the comic printed in color, but illustrations of women and girls fill the margins of the full page, including a little girl holding a suffragette sign.
Only a decade later, the comics of Ethel Hays portray the glamorous, independent flapper woman of the 1920s. The main character, wearing a drop-waist dress and a short bob cut, quips about partying and her inability to cook, breaking the mold of the traditional woman of the time.
The women of the 1940s continued to challenge the role of women. Crime-fighting, fiery heroines appeared in the form of Señorita Rio, a nightclub entertainer by day and Nazi-fighter by night; Glory Forbes, known as “The Woman in Red”; and a slew of other brave women who fought for justice – and often saved men.
Yet they weren’t the only fiery females of their time – the women who wrote and illustrated their stories broke down gender barriers with just as much spunk. A spirited letter from the Committee for Women Cartoonists addressing the men of the National Cartoonists Society, an organization that barred women from joining their professional society, is displayed in the exhibit as an example of their fearless trailblazing.
Another “sign of the times” is seen in the romance comics of the 1950s, which supported the woman’s role in the home in that post-World War II era. As male cartoonists returned from war, they pushed women into what they deemed as a gender-appropriate job, according to an explanation posted in the exhibit.
One such comic, titled, “You Can’t Fool Love,” depicts a woman agonizing over why her lover has not proposed and at the same time reflecting how she never thought she would want to be married.
Modern comics from the mid-1990s to the present returned to challenging social issues by addressing topics such as body image, acceptance of same-sex relationships, and domestic abuse. Some of the women are illustrated to have more realistic body types, as opposed to the idealized female body portrayed in most comics. Part of the exhibit acknowledges and discusses the hyper-sexualization of women in comics as well.
For those looking for further insight into the exhibit, the panel discussions will be held this summer at the museum. The first will be held July 18 at 7:30 p.m., and features comic artists Trina Robbins, Ramona Fradon, Mary Fleener, and Carol Lay. Fleener, an Encinitas cubic artist, and Lay’s work can be found in the exhibit, while many of the comics exhibited are from Robbins’ personal collection.
Jackie Estrada, who has been the administrator of the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards for 23 years, along with two women from the game industry are set to appear at a second panel on August 15 at 7 p.m. Senior Artist Laurie Fuller and Senior Character Artist Kacey Helms, both of Sony Online Entertainment, will join Estrada on the panel.
The panels will be open to audience questions and input, which is why the topic is very general, Adam said. With the exhibit and panels, the museum is full of ways to gain insight on the history and present of comics while beating the summer heat. For more information about the exhibit, visit the Women’s Museum of California’s website at womensmuseumca.org.