The Inking Woman: A Chat with Nicola Streeten

Nicola Streeten looks to retell the history of British comics and cartoons with The Inking Woman

Feature by Kirstyn Smith | 07 Aug 2018

It started off simply – four women putting their heads together to come up with a list of female cartoonists. The end result was The Inking Woman exhibition at the Cartoon Museum in London, a celebration of British women cartoon and comic artists.

"Afterwards, when Cath Tate and I were going around the exhibition thinking about the book, we realised it needed to be bigger than the exhibition," recalls Nicola Streeten, illustrator, graphic novelist and co-editor of The Inking Woman. "We’d had time to reflect and think of more people to be in it."

With a PhD in the Cultural History of Feminist Cartoons and Comics in Britain from 1970-2010, Streeten was an obvious choice to get involved, along with Tate, who has been at the helm of Cath Tate Cards for 30 years. After looking through Tate’s personal archives – homed, mainly, in cardboard boxes – Streeten began thinking about how, or if, the history of women’s cartoons are recorded.

"The clue is in the archive," she says. "If you go to an archive and it’s masculine, it’s controlled by a masculine lens. The tastemakers in society create and determine what is funny, what is popular and what comics can be."

What we learn from The Inking Woman book is that female tastemakers were out there, working in academia and creating feminist publishers and magazines, but their contributions have faded into the backgrounds of history. Streeten noticed that cartoons were an important part of feminist activity, prevalent in the suffrage movement during which women used screenprinting techniques because they were quick and fairly affordable.

"A lot of the banners and artwork produced used what we now see as the language of comics and cartoons, with inter-relationships between text and image and panels and borders," she notes. "The pictorial idea of suffrage, both anti- and pro-suffrage, was also appearing on postcards, which led to the popularity of postcards for political activism."

What’s essential about political graphic works is being able to find a shred of yourself in it, which is, perhaps, why women’s work wasn’t as commended by patriarchal influencers. A key thing when it comes to political humour is that it’s not based, necessarily, around belly laughs, but recognition.

"It’s about pinpointing an experience, and the experience of being a woman is what was picked up from the 70s onward," explains Streeten. "So, cartoons about childcare, or difficulties at work, or being overlooked might be something that we recognise. It’s not about a hierarchy of humour, but that sense of togetherness and belonging, and a reinforcing of groups."

For her event at Edinburgh Book Festival, Streeten will give a highly visual talk about The Inking Woman book, unveil female cartoonists from the past 250 years, and tell stories of strong friendships formed due to the creation of the book. Her goals are simple: for the audience to be made aware of women cartoon and comics artists and their important British history.

"Quite often we think of comics as an American history, or French – bandes dessinées – but Britain has its own cultural history of what’s been happening with the form," she says. "I want to introduce the audience to the idea that the first caricaturist in Britain was a woman – Mary Darly – when all we hear about is Hogarth and Gillray and all these men. I hope the audience will leave challenging the assumptions that have been made around cartoons and comics. And also whet their appetite to look at what’s happening now – there’s a real richness of activity."

Nicola Streeten, Garden Theatre, Charlotte Square, 12 Aug, 11am, £pay what you can