Sunday Treat: Gender Panic in 1918

In a classic comic strip, worries about the overturning of gender norms after World War I.

I’m hoping to revive the spirit of the classic Sunday funnies on this newsletter. Below is the Polly And Her Pals comic strip page from November 24, 1918, which deals with the anxieties of women entering the workforce. The strip is broken in three sections. If you click any of them, you’ll get the art in larger form.

Created by Cliff Sterrett (1883-1964), Polly and Her Pals ( which ran from 1912 to 1958) was from the start about gender worries. Polly Perkins was a “new woman”: young, liberated, eager to take control of her life, and not in any hurry to marry. Her “pals” are her her hapless parents: Maw and Paw Perkins. It took Sterrett time to find the final visual form for his characters but by 1918 he settled on showing Polly as an Amazon: tall, leggy, towering over her squat, frumpy parents. Sterrett’s art is the real star of the show: his characters are delightfully antic to look at as they prance across the page.

The top tier of the strip sums up the joke: the grumpy patriarch Paw Perkins is dragged in front of a female judge by a female cop. In the strip itself, Paw is grumbling at home as the womenfolk talk of fashion. He goes out only to find a world of women cabdrivers, women street cleaners, women doctors and women police officers.

I think that part of what’s going on in the strip is not only worries about the advent of female suffrage which was to take place two years later (alluded to in the final panel) but also that during the first World War, as in later conflicts, women were taking up many jobs held by men. The strip was published just after the war ended but would have been drawn six weeks earlier in the very last days of the war.

The strip, and many other treasures, can be found in Dean Mullaney’s wonderful book, King of Comics: One Hundred Years of King Features Syndicate. (The top-notch restoration and coloring was done by Lorraine Turner and Dean Mullaney).

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