I kept wondering – if I had to sum up what I’d learned, to pass it on, what would essential information for girls be?
I asked Jacky Fleming, Penguin and Bloomsbury published cartoonist, what led to her new book, The Trouble with Women (Square Peg, 2016). Most pleasingly, the book combines – as always – great wit, wry understatement and appropriate rage. Unlike her other collections, this time Jacky draws from the Victorians, parodying fusty, Ruskinesque, academic attitudes and the systematic exclusion of women from history. I’ve grown up reading her satirical work on contemporary socio-political issues, work which has been published in the Observer, the Guardian, the Independent on Sunday and Diva (to name but a few). What, I wondered, had caused the change from dealing with the current to the historical?
“It started to take shape after I came across Darwin’s theory of female inferiority – which was based on such illogical arguments and unscientific evidence,” she explains. “I started to research women whose achievements were clear contradictions of Darwin’s theory, and came across so many that the exercise felt absurd. My complete ignorance of most of the women was also puzzling. It became very apparent that excluding women from history is a crucial part of that same propaganda machine which grooms women to accept a false and diminished version of ourselves. After that, it was a matter of drawing connections across time – women have been angry about the same things since long before the First Wave of feminism, and trolling existed long before the internet. Women’s endless achievements are routinely hidden in the dustbin of history to naturalise inequality, so nothing changes. That’s essential information for all girls everywhere.”
Jacky’s work, and its unique combination of information, empowerment and humour, has certainly always been essential to me. I first came across it when I was 15 and my mum gave me her first collection, Be a Bloody Train Driver (I’m Going to be a Brain Surgeon). I still have my cherished copy of this book – which has passed through the hands of every friend I have and still seems piercingly relevant today. I couldn’t resist asking her what led to this piece of work:
“It started with postcards rather than books,” she says. “I put the first cards in an envelope and sent them to publishers. That led to the first book, but it was the postcards which were my social activism, and they were more important to me than the books. The cards were a way of communicating with a lot of people, over great distances, before there was any internet. It’s sad that a lot of the themes are still current, which is what the most recent book The Trouble with Women addresses.”
The little girl who first appeared in Be a Bloody Train Driver leaping in her baggy t-shirt, proudly bearing the female sign and commanding the reader to “Never Give Up”, quickly became feminist iconography. She graced the wall of my Women’s Committee room at university, and I’ve seen her on t-shirts and placards at every women’s rights demo I’ve ever been to. Delivering social commentary through the mouths of girls and children is a favourite device in Jacky’s work, and she points out “Girls who don’t conform are irresistible to women because femininity is so constraining. That little girl just says what we already feel – and doesn’t care what people think. She says what we’d like to say. She’s also saying you’re neither a nutter nor are you alone.”
Jacky’s first book was soon followed up with the bitingly brilliant Hello Boys, which identified on its cover the role adverts like Wonderbra played in pushing porn into the mainstream – to the great detriment of women and girls. I was a university student in the mid 90s, experiencing first-hand the backlash against the gains of radical feminism which became known as “New Laddism”. Hello Boys joined Be a Bloody Train Driver as vital talisman against the harassment and aggression to which we found ourselves exposed, and became a means of bonding with – and politicising – the other people around me. What did Jacky feel about the way in which the lessons of the Second Wave were buried under the exploitative deluge of FHM, Loaded, Maxim and TFI Friday?
“It was an eye-opener to witness the deliberate unravelling of any progress women had made in my lifetime. I was fascinated by how insidious and sneaky the grooming process was and is, gradually removing any political or critical awareness. It’s really a form of propaganda. The way pornography was normalised in this country was so calculated – first in the guise of documentaries on TV. There was a lot of money to be made from normalising porn, pole dancing, and cosmetic surgery. There was even a pseudo-science documentary (Equinox), promoting breast implants called Storm in a D Cup – such blatant grooming, it left me speechless. That’s normally when I remember that I’m not speechless and start drawing. It’s how I fight back. The discipline of reducing an argument into a single cartoon is useful, as it forces you to locate the core of the problem instead of ranting aimlessly. It’s a thought process of distillation. If drawing seems like a slow process, I comfort myself with the thought that Marie Curie ground up tons of rock for years, to isolate the tiniest amount of radium! Cartooning is a lot of research for a single drawing – but takes less toll on your body than isolating radium.”
For me, the elements of the feminist movement which claim feminists must be ‘accepting’ of porn and prostitution are troubling. On this subject Jacky comments “Anything which implies that only men have needs, and women’s job is to meet them, reinforces a fundamental inequality. The combination of an obsession with female sexuality, simultaneous with its denigration and suppression, is a minefield for women to negotiate. Men project their own turmoil onto us. We’re in a no-win situation. I don’t think it will change until women are credited with our history, and seen as substantial and equal participants in the world. An uncensored version of our history would be incompatible with lack of respect. Keeping women’s achievements hidden allows women to be treated as accessories, and defined by other people in a two-dimensional role.”
It’s much harder to reduce a woman to a sexual object or plaything if she’s discovered radium and polonium.
When I ask Jacky whether it was the desire to be an artist or the righteous indignation of the activist that sparked her career as a cartoonist and illustrator, she answers “it wasn’t entirely an accident but nothing so focused as a career move”. It’s hard to believe that Jacky didn’t have everything planned out when she has such a specific approach to creating her work: “It’s a case of finding exactly the right combination of word and line to capture something that will make the meaning – the purpose of the image – erupt in the reader. It’s where the two meet that something unexpected occurs. So it’s more like a jigsaw of intentions reduced until its meaning and humour are inextricable.” However, when I enquire about her daily routine, a more relaxed practice is revealed: “An average day depends on the weather because I could happily spend all of every day on the allotment. It’s a relief when the weather’s not so good because then I can draw all day.” She adds, “I love silence in the same way other people love music.”
I’m excited to discuss her drawing style, which can be beautifully ornate when required, or convey complicated and comical emotions in a just few lines. “My earliest cartoons were so badly drawn it’s nothing short of a miracle that I do this for a living. I had no idea how to go about it, and drew in a peculiar way which I thought resembled a cartoon style. I don’t bother doing that now, I just draw and don’t even attempt to impersonate a cartoon. Although I studied Fine Art, it didn’t give me any drawing skills, but Griselda Pollock did introduce me to a feminist analysis of art history – which changed everything.”
It feels like Jacky has a book for every stage of life. Just as Be A Bloody Train Driver and Hello Boys speak to us about being a child and teenager in a patriarchy, Demented is a depiction of an artist’s experience of middle-age. Falling in Love is a collection of cartoons exploding the myth of ‘romance’ and exposing emotionally abusive patterns in relationships. Thinking about these books led me to ask how much of Jacky’s work is filtered through a personal lens, and how much is reflecting back what she sees other women going through?
“It’s both,” she explains. “The transformative power of feminism is when you discover that the experiences we have in common are not mere coincidence. Shame has kept women quiet about important things, so transforming shame into politics, and humour, has been one of feminism’s great achievements. Isolating women from each other is political, because the things we have in common across time, cultures, and continents, despite our differences, is an indictment.”
In isolation, we internalise blame onto ourselves, but that’s a lot harder to do if there are thousands of women sharing information.
Throughout our interview, Jacky’s tone has been very assured when expressing her views or explaining her practice, but she keeps an undercurrent of gentle self-effacement when referring to the positive impact of her work. She’s clearly an inspiration and resource for several generations as evidenced by the publishing deals, exhibitions in galleries and comedy festivals, and the inclusion of her cartoons everywhere from broadsheets and the BBC, to Open University and Oxford University Press. When I ask her who her heroines are I get a typically enthusiastic, well-informed, sisterly response:
“While I was researching The Trouble with Women, every woman I read about was an inspiration, one after another. It wasn’t just that they could so obviously do what men said they couldn’t do, but that they had to do it in the face of such extraordinary obstacles created to stop them. It would be an insult to say women can achieve as much when they have, in truth, achieved so much more.”
If history didn’t censor women out so routinely, it would be impossible to maintain the myth of inequality in the face of so much evidence. The censorship of women from history is an outrage.
“I try to imagine what it must have been like for Margaret Bulkley to live her entire adult life disguised as James Barry in order to study medicine and become a surgeon,” Jacky goes on. “Harriet Tubman had courage I can’t imagine having, risking everything to free other slaves, apart from her husband who wouldn’t budge because he’d shacked up with another woman. That must have been quite a charged moment. Katherine McKormick’s use of the money she inherited to fund the development of a birth control pill has changed women’s lives so profoundly. Rebecca Gomperts is a contemporary equivalent, still facing huge opposition. Emmy Noether is a heroine for her mathematical brilliance, un-phased by the disgraceful opposition to her becoming a salaried member of university staff, while her male equivalent Einstein was being lionised. The list could go on forever. Imagine how different it would be, for boys as well as girls, to grow up learning about those women. Not knowing is a travesty.”
Towards the end of our interview Jacky laments, “I completely forgot to be funny! Happens all the time.” I beg to differ with her; with her killer-eye and razor-sharp observations she remains one of the most astute, perceptive and hilarious heroines of our generation.
What’s Jacky Reading?
First hand accounts of Harriet Jacobs and Mary Prince’s experiences as slaves: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs
The History of Mary Prince by Mary Prince
Sophia Jex-Blake: A Woman Pioneer in Nineteenth Century Medical Reform by Shirley Roberts
The Female Malady: Women Madness and English Culture by Elaine Showalter
The Creation of Patriarchy by Gerda Lerner
Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox