At Swords’ Point: Humor As Weapon
So says Betty Swords. And she should know. For over twenty-five years, starting in 1955, she was a professional humorist. She sold her cartoons to the major magazine markets, including Saturday Evening Post, Redbook, Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, Changing Times. She also produced a considerable quantity of humorous writing for such publications as McCall’s, Modern Maturity, Christian Science Monitor, and others. And beginning in 1976, Swords taught college courses in the power of humor and lectured widely on the subject. (The substance of her lectures she has incorporated into a book project, Humor Power; excerpts from the precis for the book appear at the end of this report.)
Swords discovered the hostile side of humor after she’d been cartooning for a dozen years or so.
“I was reading a book of comic one-liners,” she reported, “—The Encyclopedia of Humor by Joey Adams—when I became aware of a growing discomfort. People usually skim these books, but I had to read them thoroughly because I reviewed them for The Denver Post. I was growing punchy from the aptly-named punchlines. And then I realized that the punching bag was always a woman.
“Marriage is seen as bad,” she went on, recollecting the experience as we talked on the patio in back of her Denver home in June 1995. And she cited examples of one-liners to prove her point:
Married life is great—it’s my wife I can’t stand.
He was unlucky in both his marriages—his first wife left him. And his second one won’t.
A bachelor’s last words—I do.
“Marriage is seen as horrible because it meant that the man had lost his freedom,” she continued. “Everything about marriage was very bad for men. I kept going through the books, looking. Husbands were bachelors who had run out of luck. Then I checked cartoons. Cartoonists usually have their studios at home, and I thought they’d be more domesticated than, say, night club comedians with their one-liners. And I found that in one way cartoonists were worse: I saw how hideously ugly they made the battle-axe wife. Women were either babes or battle-axes. As babes, they were always trying to trick a man into marriage, after which they got bigger and became battle-axes.
“All the jokes were not only against marriage,” Swords said, “they were against women as well: the fall guy was a gal.”
More incriminating one-liners:
A woman’s brain is divided into two parts—dollars and cents.
Women have a tough life. They have to cook and clean and scrub. That’s hard to do without getting out of bed.
“Women were dumb about money, dumb about driving, dumb about anything that happened in the real world,” Swords said. “And that began my trip into feminism. I began to see how humor treated women. Dumb, dumb, dumb. Humor did it to blacks, too; they were dumb. Did it to Jews—not dumb, but sly; not to be trusted. The Irish at one time were the victims of humor. The Polish. The power of the stereotype. When you made them the object of humor, you could make them lose their humanity and become objects of ridicule, and you could even kill them with impunity.”
Suddenly, Swords said, she realized why there were so few women cartoonists. “Actually, it’s probably easier for a woman to become a doctor or lawyer than a cartoonist,” she said. “It’s men who dominate the humor field, especially in cartoons.”
Women cartoonists are discriminated against because of their ideas. “Women don’t make jokes,” she said, “because they are the joke.” What’s funny to a woman doesn’t appeal to male editors, who tend to want women in the jokes to be the butt of the humor; and women are likely to be uncomfortable to be always in that roll.
All at once, her “rather Pollyana view of humor as a kindly contemplation of life’s incongruities” (quoting Stephen Leacock) changed: she saw humor’s tremendous power “to kill as well as to amuse. Humor commits countless little murders of its victims’ self esteem. I saw that too often men used humor as a weapon against the Others of society, and it was women who marched at the head of this Hit Parade. And since each of us marches to a different drummer, we all join the humor hit parade at some time.”
Swords’ journey of discovery began in an antebellum hotel in a little town in Mississippi in the early 1940s.
She grew up in Oakland, California, and earned her bachelor of fine arts degree at the University of California at Berkeley. She did graduate work across the Bay at the San Francisco Academy of Advertising Art.
“I specialized in fashion illustration,” Swords told me. “What I had planned to do—from the time I was four—I wanted to draw the most beautiful paper dolls. And as I grew older, I was constantly drawing paper dolls, designing clothes for them and so forth. In high school I studied costume design, and in college they had something called Household Art, which was hardly very good for cartooning. When I graduated from college, the only real place for costume designing was New York, and the designers were in New York—and they were all men anyhow—and it just seemed like not a very good idea, so I went to that school in San Francisco and did fashion illustration mainly.”
I asked: “Was this an acceptable career for a woman at that time?”
“Yes,” she said. “Fashion illustration for women’s clothes, in particular. Women were not supposed to be able to draw men. And we had one student who did a wonderful job doing men’s fashion, and she ended up with a job at a men’s store. But I didn’t do any fashion illustration until after we got married.”
Swords married a doodlebug. “Leonard’s a geophysicist,” she explained. “Oil exploration. We moved a lot. For six years, we averaged a move every two months. We were in California the first year. But after that, it was all over. Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi.”
For most of that six years, World War II was raging, and the home front was plagued with shortages—“certainly in housing,” Swords said. “Nearly half the time we lived in auto courts; motels didn’t exist out in the boonies where they usually find oil. I tried freelance fashion illustration while we were in Sacramento with great success. I got work right away in three stores—and after three weeks, we were transferred. It was even worse in two other places: we were transferred before I started work. Frustrating! Fashion work requires a good-sized town, and staying put, neither of which is common to the doodlebug (oil exploration) life. I was stuck with painting scenes—when there was any scenery. And then we arrived at Stafford Springs, in the wilds of Mississippi—population, two, I think,” Swords said with a grin.
“It was a health spa, hot springs. We were there for a week’s work, which lasted almost a month because it rained and poured and thundered every day, and when that happened, the roads became impassable. And the electricity went off. The refrigeration went off, and no water! We carried our little jugs from the wells at the bottom of the road up to our hotel room to flush the toilet or to wash. Anyhow—there was this book in the hotel lobby, a beat-up copy of Writer’s Yearbook. And in it was an article about cartooning, and it said, ‘Now that so many men are in the service, women are welcome in the cartooning business.’ Not only that but it observed that cartooning was the only form of commercial art that can be done by mail—from anywhere!
“Both of those things hit me,” she continued. “If anybody was any place and every place, it was me. I began drawing. I always loved humor, and I loved drawing people. In fact, I used to read the Saturday Evening Post from the back and make scrapbooks of the cartoons and of ‘Postscripts’ [the jokes and cartoons page]. So eventually, when I got into the Post and then into ‘Postscripts,’ it was quite exciting. But it was a long ‘eventually’ because I hadn’t met a cartoonist, I hadn’t met an editor, so I wasn’t sure how to go about it; I just read what was in the Writer’s Yearbook about sending cartoons to different markets—which I did—in pencil! I sent just the pencil rough. Later I learned that I should have enclosed a finished inked drawing with the roughs. And of course I sent them to all the top markets to start with. Gurney Williams at Collier’s had held a couple of mine, but I never sold a one. There or anywhere. And we kept moving. I quit cartooning after awhile. The backs of my cartoons were just covered with different addresses. The postage was adding up. And the mail took forever to catch up with us.”
She quit doing cartoons but she never stopped thinking of cartoon ideas, and when she and her husband finally settled in Midland, Texas, she joined a writer’s group. And then she took up gag writing.
“One of the first places I tried was Dennis the Menace [which began in 1951],” Swords said. “I had two boys, one older than Dennis, one younger. So I had some Dennis ideas. And at one of our writer’s group meetings, we had paper napkins with Dennis cartoons on them. That’s what prompted me to submit to Hank Ketcham. I didn’t write first and ask; I just sent about eight gags at the same time as I asked if he wanted any. And when I met him a few years later, he said he rarely ever bought gags that way. He had a couple regular gag writers that he used. But for some reason, the ones I sent hit him. And I worked for him for some time.”
She also furnished gags to Dave Gerard, Martha Blanchard, Irvin Caplin, Morrie Brickman, and others. Eventually, she heard about New York Cartoon News, a little newsletter for cartoonists and gag writers. She corresponded with the editor, Don Ulsh, who, when he learned she had a background in art, urged her to draw up her own gags.
“If you ask, who inspired me,” Swords said, “the answer is, No one. There weren’t that many women. There weren’t that many cartoonists I could relate to that way. Plus the fact that I grew up with the notion that copying was terrible. I wish I hadn’t. I would have learned a lot faster. What I did was to do a page of facial expressions that I copied from different cartoonists. I’d make pages of action, copying from action pictures—stick drawings. All this for my education.”
I said: “Traditionally, that’s exactly the way most cartoonists learning cartooning—by copying other cartoonists.”
“I think that’s fine,” she said. “Now. That’s the way they should learn. I saved cartoons and kept them for scrap when they illustrated things I wanted to draw. Baseball. The theater.”
Swords agonized over her cartoons, and much of her suffering derived entirely from not knowing cartoonists or meeting editors and finding out what could be done and what couldn’t be done. In retrospect, however, she sees this circumstance as a mixed blessing.
“I was unlucky,” she said, “to be starting cartooning away from New York or any major city where I might have found help handy—responses and advice, that sort of thing. But I was also lucky—lucky that I didn’t start in the New York area because it would have been easy to blame a beginner’s problems on being a woman in a man’s field. When I finally got to New York, I met about sixty cartoonists; only one was a woman. But it was too late to quit then since I’d already started selling to the Saturday Evening Post.”
In 1954, she acquired an agent to sell her cartoons—Alice Heuman.
“Agents certainly aren’t necessary,” Swords said, “nor is it usually possible to get an agent until you are selling, but I seemed to need a lot of crutches, and Alice’s biggest advantage to me was that there was someone waiting every week for a batch of cartoons from me. Editors at magazines couldn’t care less about whether I produce or not, and it was easy to get too busy to get out a weekly batch—until I got an agent, who was always waiting.
“Another reason I wanted an agent was to save time,” she continued. “That summer, one batch of mine had been gone six months to only two publications. The seasonal gags were quickly out-dated. An agent can visit most major markets in a day.”
Heuman sold Swords’ first cartoon within a few months to King Features’ “Laugh-A-Day.” Shortly after that, the Saturday Evening Post started buying. She knew she had arrived, she said, when she started all at once to get letters from gag writers, offering to sell her ideas, most of which were heavy on the battle-axe wives with rolling pins—“an old and sturdy stereotype,” Swords said.
Soon she was appearing in many other magazines. Eventually, she made it into The New Yorker, too--in a noted series of ads about carpet: “A Title on the Door Rates a Bigelow on the Floor.”
Hank Ketcham urged her to go to New York to meet editors and others in the business, and later that year, she did. Ketcham gave her other sound advice, too, Swords said: “He recommended taking a ream of paper, drawing 500 cartoons—and then start sending them out.”
He also suggested that she regularly attend community theater. Stage productions provide good examples of how to compose a scene in a single panel cartoon.
When Swords went to New York, Heuman took her around and introduced her to cartoonists and to editors. She stayed five days, and she made the rounds on Look Day, Wednesday.
“I met Gurney Williams,” she recalled. “And it was strange. After all the time I’d been sending things to him since the forties, he was strangely stand-offish. He wasn’t helpful, wasn’t welcoming. I think now that he was just shy, but then he scared me. Later, he found out through a friend of mine who was selling humor pieces to him, and he wrote me a note, saying, ‘Kay says I scare you.’ And what he told her was that he liked my work but my men were too young. I thought that Hank Ketcham had the right idea: that the father of a small boy should be young. And most of the cartoons in magazines then had fathers and mothers who looked more like grandparents.”
“Not realistic at all,” I said.
“No,” she said. “And the majority of my cartoons were domestic cartoons, dealing with the family—momma, poppa, and the kids. The main difference between young persons and old you can see in the neck: older people’s heads come right down to their shoulders; younger people have necks.”
With a husband and two young children under foot, Swords quickly realized that she needed the discipline of a regular daily regimen in order to produce enough cartoons to keep her agent occupied. Her routine is based upon a simple rule: Never do housework while the children are at school.
She began the practice when her youngest son entered nursery school. “The moment he’d leave the house,” she said, “I’d take my coffee to the work table and get busy.”
She spent the morning writing, then read a little, then worked on cartoons in the afternoon. Household chores began after school. “Housework doesn’t take a brain,” she said. “I could do that and talk to my children at the same time.”
Her routine didn’t leave much time for fancy cooking on a daily basis, but Swords made up for it with a “cook in” on most Saturdays. (Swords added “most” to the sentence while this piece was in its penultimate state, saying, “I sound so darned organized, and I wasn’t that good at it!”) On Saturday, she’d make six times an average family favorite recipe and freeze what wasn’t eaten that night. Over a period of weekends, she accumulated a variety of frozen favorite meals that she’d thaw out on weekdays. It was a maneuver that made great sense to her: “You go through all the work and make enough for only one meal, and—whoosh!—it’s all gone at once. My way, there’s something left for all that effort.”
Even with the discipline of her workday, Swords’ output was relatively small. She spent as much as two hours drawing and inking a cartoon; her weekly batches were 5-7 cartoons. She once described her method as follows:
“First I draw on a tracing pad, a difficult action shot may find one figure redrawn with additional tracing papers; a complicated background may be drawn on another sheet of tracing paper placed over the first. All the principles of good art are basic to cartooning, and most cartoonists are wonderful artists. In cartoons, the artist must be selective. The sketches may be detailed, but there is an art in selecting which details to draw.
“In transferring the sketch via light table to good quality typing paper, I often push the people closer together. One of my greatest faults has always been scattering the people too far apart, hating to overlap them—which is one reason I still work with tracing paper: it enables me to correct this tendency. I transfer in pencil since I can’t do a good job this way in ink, and then I do my inking with a No. 1 Winsor Newton brush. I do not take one cartoon through from start to finish but always work on the week’s batch at once, first in pencil, then transferring, and finally inking, the inking being done in the morning when I am freshest.”
Eventually, Swords abandoned the brush. “Recently, I’ve been using a flair pen—terrible if you want to use water. I loved the brush—thick and thin. But when it’s reduced a lot, you lose the thin. And when you haven’t been working a lot, doing it every day, you lose that perfect touch of thick and thin. So the flair pen is fine. I like it.”
Shortly after selling her first cartoons, Swords started selling humorous text pieces, too. Some ideas were simply too complex to be adequately conveyed by cartoons.
“My pieces were like those Erma Bombeck does—or, before her, Jean Kerr,” Swords said. “A number of them were sold to the Christian Science Monitor and to the Denver Post Sunday magazine, Empire. The nice thing about doing short humor pieces is that I could illustrate them, too. Sometimes I got more money from the illustrations for my own articles than I did for the writing.”
I asked: “To what extent were you made conscious of the fact that as a woman you were either doing something you shouldn’t do or that you were unusual because you were doing it?”
“Constantly,” she said. “Still. One of the issues of Cartoonist PROfiles that Jud Hurd sent me has an article in which the writer says that only one or two percent of the cartoonists are women.”
I said, “I think of women cartoonists in the twenties—like Alice Harvey, for example, who was printed in Life, and Judge and even The New Yorker—”
”And the one with the dog.”
“Oh, yes—Edwina Dumm,” I said. “Who, by the way, was the first female political cartoonist.”
Swords corrected me: “No, I don’t believe so. I have a book put out by the University of New Mexico Press by Alice Sheppard. Called Cartooning for Suffrage, it traces the political cartooning done by women way back in the 1800s. In abolitionist newspapers, for example. Edwina may have been the first woman political cartoonist in a regular paper.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “Her paper was a weekly, the Monitor, in Columbus, Ohio, near where she grew up. And then she went on to do the comic strip, Cap Stubbs and Tippie. And the amazing thing was that she did her political cartooning even before women could vote—before 1920. But I’m thinking of people like Alice Harvey, Ethel Hays, Mary Petty, Dorothy McKay—who appeared in Esquire magazine from the first issue on, I think. And Mary Petty who appeared there regularly. They were drawing for a male audience, even.”
Swords nodded. “Most of them employed the male stereotype. And who was the one who did her pictures in color?”
“Barbara Shermund,” I said.
“Yes, yes. Hers were gold-diggers, dames—amateur prostitutes.”
“But these women cartoonists were making a living, even in a male-dominated field,” I said. “They were being published.”
“Yes, that’s true,” she said. Then she smiled. “At one time, I sold general cartoons to some of the men’s magazines, the girlies—until I went into a newsstand one day and looked at one.”
I laughed: “And then you decided you didn’t want to be there!”
She laughed, too: “I said this is not for me.”
Turning to another subject, I asked about her reception when she and her agent, two women, called on New York editors. “Did the temperature of the room change?”
“Very, very, very much so,” she said. “I remember one editor who shuffled through my cartoons then tossed them on the desk and said, ‘You gal cartoonists are all alike—you don’t attack and hit hard enough!’ In the same vein, I met cartoonist-publisher Roger Price in Denver one time, and after looking at my work, he said, ‘Isn’t there anything you hate?’
“Aside from stereotypes,” she went on, “—or perhaps along with them—men seem to prefer more aggression, hostility. I wouldn’t come up with very sexist or hostile humor. I don’t really like hate humor. Yet my work would not seem funny to many male editors, and I wouldn’t know the main reason. So how come, as a woman, I sold at all? Never hugely, but some.
“For one thing, I often avoided the stereotype problem because my cartoons were usually about kids,” she said. “But not always. I hate to admit it—even to myself—but I followed some of the same sexist stereotypes. I used gags sent to me by a gag writer, and I chose them because they looked like the kind of cartoon gag I often saw published. Things like the parasite wife who surprises her husband—‘I got you something for your birthday that I’ve been wanting for a long time.’ Or the dumb bride who burbles to her husband, ‘Do you like the steak? I boiled it myself.’
“Would it be funny if the new bride and groom are looking at their apartment for the first time and when he sees the kitchen, he says, ‘What’s this?’”
I said: “The image of women in cartoons seems to me to be a terribly knotty problem just on the face of it. But as you were talking about cartoon women—as soon as they get married they became three feet taller and a hundred pounds heavier—I was thinking about ‘Father Knows Best’ on television, whose wife was very attractive. The father may have known best, but it was really the wife who ran the family. Dagwood Bumstead isn’t the head of that household; Blondie is the only sensible one in the house. She is occasionally portrayed as being a little empty-headed, but there’s a common sense streak there, too.”
“I’d like to say something about Dagwood,” Swords interrupted. “I think he’s a good example of why we should look for a cartoon’s secondary target. First, of course, he’s the butt, tricked by Blondie—poor, dumb, Dagwood, the epitome of the thirties loser, but he comes out as always the good guy. And what about Blondie, who ‘wins’? It’s usually money, not to buy groceries or clothes for a growing family, but hats—for herself. She is still the gold-digger she was before she trapped that ‘wealthy playboy’ Dagwood. Pretty, but a conniving cheat, as well as an airhead who can talk two hours to a wrong number. She is not a likable person—the source of the Japanese stereotype of overbearing American women who run everything. Now that she has a job—cooking! —she has stopped tricking Dagwood out of money.”
“But, still,” I flailed on, “Blondie isn’t stupid. Nor is the mother in ‘Father Knows Best.’ So women aren’t always the victims or the butt of the joke in marriage. These examples may be the exceptions that prove the rule, of course, but what I’m trying to do here is not to defend the status quo but to explore the idea that in a visual humorous medium like this, we’re employing stereotypical images all the time, perpetuating whatever the culture is committed to. How do we get out of that?”
“It takes somebody to start changing,” Swords said. “Something like ‘Grace Under Fire.’ Do you like that tv show? I am impressed with the fact that she does not do easy answers; she does not do the stereotypical thing. She’s far more real. ‘Frasier’ is different, too; so is ‘Seinfeld.’ I suppose it will have to be things like this that will make the changes.”
“But,” I said, “how do you communicate in a culture like this, which is rife with stereotypes, without using stereotypes? Let me give you an example. I was talking to Sergio Aragones, who does pantomime cartoons—no words. That’s his specialty. He said if he did a cartoon in which there was a female doctor, he would dress her like a doctor—in white uniform—and she would automatically be taken to be the nurse. Our culture predetermines that response. Women are nurses. Not doctors. That’s the stereotype. We are limited by the stereotypical vehicle that cartoonists must use under certain circumstances in order to convey fully the idea. So how do we escape that?”
“It’s slow,” Swords said, “but you know, it is changing. I remember an announcer on TV once saying, This is just the thing—every man and woman should have one. And I let out a yell—Hooray! Finally, they’re including us. We’re part of the world.”
“Still,” I said, “the problem with stereotypical images is very complex. It’s difficult to avoid stereotypes—and it’s just as difficult, actually, to do certain kinds of cartoons without working in stereotypes. If you’re going to show a woman whose essential work is in the home, where are you going to show her doing that? It’s probably going to be in the kitchen. If you are going to show a tyrant of a boss, what does he look like and where is he going to be? He’s going to be behind his desk, towering over somebody else—probably standing up and blowing off steam.”
“Why not have a woman executive?” Swords asked.
“Yes, a good question,” I said. “But my point is that there are stereotypical images that are part of the visual language of our society.”
“Okay,” Swords said, “the woman in the kitchen should be dressed in street clothes, office clothes, because more than half of all wives and women work outside the home. So she comes home and she cooks dinner. She may still be wearing her hat.”
I shifted the subject somewhat: “Are there cartoons or comic strips that are doing a creditable job these days of steering clear of stereotypes?”
“Sally Forth by Greg Howard is wonderful,” she said. “I think that’s terrific. Lynn Johnston—hers is a different kind entirely. I think her natural humor is very good. But Sally Forth is funny, and it certainly presents everybody’s point of view but more closely the women. I sent Howard a fan letter, saying how much I enjoyed it. To have the best feminist cartoon being done by a man is impressive. He said, ‘I’ve got a wife and two teenage girls who keep me honest.’”
Some don’t have that kind of support, though, Swords told me. “I’ve had conversations by mail with Cathy Guisewite, and she said she cannot make wise cracks in her strip Cathy. She cannot have Cathy answer back, be clever, be funny—do any put-downs—because the syndicate says that’s not like Cathy. So Cathy comes out looking like the teenage cartoon girls they used to have who want nothing but dates and dresses and diets. The only difference is that the character holds a responsible job. She couldn’t possibly hold if she were really that nutty. And they phased out her feminist friend—who was a member of NOW. And the two often did things together. But her friend has got married and had a child and changed entirely. No more feminist material there at all.”
Swords is a charter member of the Denver NOW chapter, which started in the summer of 1970.
“When they were getting it started,” she said, “I knew I had to stand up for what I believed in. I was a traditional married woman with children, and I wrote and did cartoons, but I was not a rabble-rouser—until I got into it.”
I laughed: “And then you became a rabble-rouser!”
She laughed, too: “We worked within the system. We were trying to change the system and bring about equality for women. My sister thinks what I do is fine, but it’s difficult for her to see it. Sometimes. Sometimes not. We were at a jumping frog contest in a little town near here, one of those things that the junior chamber of commerce puts on. And these young fellows were out there—‘C’mon, get yourself a frog and name it after your mother-in-law and jump the old bat.’ And my sister turned to me indignantly, ‘Well—say something; you’re the feminist—say something!’”
Swords laughed. “Well, if I said something then, it wouldn’t have done me a bit of good, and I’d have been hooted down by all those men. But whenever something like that happens, I try to reverse it. In this case, I waited and then went up to the young man when no one was within earshot and said, ‘You know, I was interested in how you did that, but wouldn’t it have been just as funny if you’d said, ‘Name it after your father-in-law and jump the old goat.’ And he understood right away. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I’m sorry; I didn’t mean it.’ And he didn’t.”
“There’s a whole lot of unmeaning meaning that goes on,” I said.
“Right, and I think it’s a good idea to speak up.”
Swords objects to the idea that women have no sense of humor. Without a sense of humor, she says, the average wife and mother simply wouldn’t make it. “Women have to have a good sense of humor, or they couldn’t live with men. Or with children!”
But the way to test the proposition—and at the same time to see if men have a sense of humor when they are the butt of the joke—is to practice reversal. And Swords had one great success with the old switcheroo.
She’d sold several cartoons to Robert Marshall at Changing Times, including a series on back-to-school-night. “Then I came up with a new notion for the changing times that the magazine was chronicling,” she said, “—a woman political candidate. I proposed the idea to him, and he wrote back, saying, ‘The board talked it over and didn’t think it sounded very good, but if you think it can work, send me some ideas.’
“I liked that,” she said. “He was giving me credit for having a sense of humor. And he also was giving me credit for knowing what I was doing, for thinking that I had something—and obviously, as it turned out, I did—but the men on his board hadn’t thought it could be funny.
“Well, in two days,” she continued, “I had a hundred and forty-nine wonderful ideas—every one of them a beautiful switch. I sent them in, and Marshall wrote back, ‘You really did it.’ And in the October 1972 issue, they gave me a two-page spread—my first; and three colors, another first for them also. I made more on that, but to me it was important because it was where my feelings and my cartooning came together. I felt I was making a difference by forcing people to recognize the ridiculousness of the objections to women candidates, helping the great increase in women elected that year. I saw Pat Schroeder the night the magazine came out. She told me she spoke at a Kiwanis Club that noon, where one of the men told her, ‘You’ll never believe what’s in Changing Times today!’ After the election, I wrote Marshall to tell him my woman candidate won, too—‘and for a bigger job than just the city council!’”
“We made a story out of the cartoons,” she said. “I was having her run for the state legislature. But they wanted her to run for something not quite so big—city council. And I said, ‘Okay—but she’s going to win!’ Almost every cartoon is a complete reversal. One of them is a man and his wife watching tv, and the man says, ‘I suppose you’ll vote for her just because she’s a woman, when we know she’s running against a Brother Elk.’”
A year or so later, Swords participated in another overtly feminist project. This was the Male Chauvinist Pig calendar for 1974. She worked with two other Denver residents, Robert and Peggy Hurley, who had produced a similar calendar the year before. The idea for the calendar was born in Robert’s classroom at a local community college: in discussing the discrimination faced by blacks and chicanos, he found his students didn’t understand that women are also discriminated against until he asked them to list instances of discrimination in their own lives. Their examples were so telling, he felt, that he decided to use them on a calendar as a daily reminder.
In developing the calendar for 1974, Robert worked with his wife and Swords, and they initially came up with about 150 ideas, which they struggled to trim to the desired dozen. Sold throughout Denver, the calendar attracted considerable attention in both broadcast and print media. The Women’s Political Caucus used it as a fund-raiser, and also sold it through an ad in MS magazine. The originals were auctioned off at a New York fund raiser.
“Not all the cartoons are directed at men,” Swords observed at the time the calendar was published. “We are also against women who are destructive in some sense. We don’t like men or women who exploit the liberation movement or idiot women who allow themselves to be exploited.
“Humor is a personal thing,” she said, “and some people won’t like all of the cartoons. Some people don’t want to be presented with reality. This is a very personal thing for us. We made a statement and we stood behind it, and we didn’t just follow the stereotypes.”
It’s pretty clear that Swords was never a stereotype. Even her cartoon sales didn’t produce a typical response.
“When I was a gag writer,” she recalled, “I thought the greatest thrill would be to have a gag of mine in the Saturday Evening Post—written and drawn by me. But when it happened, it was nothing. Oh, I was thrilled, but there was no great clamoring at my door, brass bands and crowds yelling, Author, author! In fact, when I would casually drag my published cartoonist status into the conversation, the listener usually responded by saying, ‘Oh? That’s nice. Say, my little boy Donald can trace Mickey Mouse just perfectly—you should see.’”
She chuckled. “People who knew that I had a cartoon in a particular magazine would phone and ask what page it was on and what name I used to sign my work. But people don’t ever really look at the names of the cartoonists. You can sign your cartoons, but nobody reads those names. Except for Vip. He was the one. Everyone knew him. And so when someone asked me how I signed my cartoons, I said, ‘Vip.’”
Excerpts from the precis for Betty Swords’ Humor Power
* The male images of women created by cartoonists were accepted as the truth about women. For example: The woman driver is the safest driver, according to the National Safety Council—but not to the National Cartoonists Society. To them, she’s the quintessential “dumb driver,” an idea so set in the concrete of comic tradition that it’s become a humor shorthand: when we see a cartoon of a woman driver, we know automatically that she’s a dumb driver. Just ask a man which he believes—the Cartoonists Society or the Safety Council?
* Humor’s Role in History. Man creates society in his own image. Our unique culture, and our early tall tale humor, grew from feelings of inferiority—to the British and to the awesome wilderness. The British called the colonists “uncouth savages.” America’s first settlers couldn’t claim culture, so they made fun of it. We still ridicule the “eggheads” and the “absent-minded professors” who, supposedly, lack the “gumption.” Glasses remain the humor symbol for a wimp: he reads! The arts remain suspect as a haven for wimps—or worse. Early Americans chose for the hero of their early tall tale humor that boozing, brawling, boasting, wenching, anti-book-larnin’ son-of-a-gun, the Frontiersman. He lives on in John Wayne and Rambo, and in a president who admires them both. In Funnyland, no Real Man attends a concert or ballet. And President Reagan felt it necessary to note that his ballet-dancing son was really “all man.”
* Humor helped establish stereotypes. Humor perpetuates these always derogatory images once they are set in the concrete of comic tradition. Even social scientists accepted the black stereotype of the lazy, thieving, stupid “coon” set by minstrel show jokes. Stereotypes are wonderfully useful in a pluralistic society: you don’t have to actually know a black or a Jew to know what they’re really like. What stereotypes are, of course, are lies, invented to keep certain people “in their place.” Ideas, as well as people, are the victims of stereotypes when their advocates are ridiculed as “kooks” or “crazies.” Stereotypical jokelore becomes folklore and affects our attitudes and even our laws.
* Our history helps explain why women are the chief target of American humor: women represented culture and civilization to our tall tale hero—the enemy of his freedom—while allowing every insecure male to feel superior to someone.
* Men are victims, too, of the stereotype they chose for themselves: that brawling, boozing, wenching, anti-intellectual frontiersman. ... No other stereotype is so rigorously policed by jokes and ridicule--and it’s a killer, inflicting tremendous emotional and physical damage on the men who can’t live up to this rough-tough image, and on those who try to rise above it.
* It’s humor which perpetuates the myths that deny minorities dignity and self-respect. So it was vital that minorities develop a private coping humor to stand the pain, to put down their persecutors—and so to raise themselves.
* Feminist humor hopes to make changes by bonding with people, instead of laughing at them: the pick-up instead of the put-down.
* When you’re the victim of jokes, don’t just die there. Do something. Responses range from simple assertiveness to aikido, a kind of verbal karate which turns the thrust of the humor weapon back on the wielder.
* The larger the audience, the more conservative the humor, so newspaper funnies also reflect a static status quo made up of stereotypical humor myths—as does the press in general, newspapers and mass market magazines. Humorists are mostly merchandisers of the status quo; they must uphold the values of their audiences, especially if they’re large ones. (Political cartoonists and columnists are allowed more freedom). And yet, humorists are usually dissenters, who see the world slightly askew and ask us to share their laughter at its oddities.
* If humor has the power to help shape society—and given that our society is one of growing violence and alienation—can we not alter and improve society, at least our corner of it, by changing our humor? Only when we recognize humor’s power—for good as well as for evil—can we control that power for positive purposes in both our personal and professional lives.
Too late to make the published article, Swords me this note:
It suddenly occurred to me that I’d left out something of great importance tome: the validation of my theories on humor. A professor Browning read a precis of mine on humor power while in Denver on a speaking engagement and asked me to come to Washington, D.C. and deliver a paper on it the next year. He was presiding over the International Conference on Humor in D.C. in 1983. Another paper of mine was accepted for delivery in 1986 at the ICH at the University of Arizona in Tempe. My subject was the damage man-made humor can do to men, too, by establishing such a tough-rough stereotype that’s hard to live up to.
I was asked to speak about humor’s role in so many areas—marriage, violence, minorities, plus examining each minorities’ humor—that I felt I had enough material for a college course. I applied to three colleges and was accepted by all three! Later, a fourth. Two were credit courses; two, adult courses. That was more validation, that helped make up for a book that didn’t get published. I had a good agent who was gung-ho about it, but it was a ‘mid-market’ type book when the publishers were only buying Best Sellers. I did interest a textbook publisher, but he required an incredible amount of work: pages of questions, including all the courses that might use the book, and what publications did their professors subscribe to? Maybe clowns always want to be taken seriously.
In her last communique to me, dated April 21, 1996, Swords wrote: Presently I’m writing a book about our wild and crazy Siamese-type cat we got from the Animal Shelter, called What a Difference a Stray Makes. I plan to illustrate it when I get the Siamese right. It’s too bad he’s not a Persian—I did some good ones once—but that would be a very different story. After six years in Midland, and one-and-a-half years in Amarillo, the Swords are comfortably settled in Denver since 1957. And I hope I never have to move again!