How does society, at large, deal with anxiety? Humor. This is the argument proposed by the Oklahoma Center for Humanities’ recent exhibit “Wimmin Troubles: Humorous Images of Women from American Magazines, 1900-1920,” The exhibition was the subject of the OCH’s Final Friday gallery talk on February 26. Curated by TU Ph.D. candidates Hannah Covington and Annie Page and using the material from The Modernist Journals Project, the exhibit focuses on how early 20th-century magazines negotiated women’s changing power through humor.
Drawn from a moment when women entered the workforce in huge numbers, the exhibit captures the public’s acute anxiety over the changing social norms for women. The highlight piece was a cartoon series depicting the biblical characters, Adam, and Eve. The cartoon draws Eve as a giant, cloddish woman with a club, with Adam daintily perched on her shoulder like a parrot. The cartoon was meant to play on conventional low humor and critique the ways women and men’s bodies interact. However, Covington and Paige explain how often these cartoons reproduce the narrative the cartoon is trying to critique. Eve serves as a reminder that the women’s suffrage movement was a threat to the masculinity of men, furthering the public’s anxiety about women’s changing role.
The exhibit relents the ways male cartoon artists were involved in negotiating and interrogating women’s power using their art form. In one cartoon, a woman is rallying a crowd against a female candidate, citing her conventional female looks as a reason for her incompetence. The male artists were negotiating women’s power by projecting them as incapable of supporting each other. Casting the suffragettes as immature women who are unable to engage with real political issues.
The curators end the gallery talk by bringing a significant point to light, masculinity was being renegotiated during this period as well. The exhibit shows a significant anxiety over masculinity in the early 20th-century. While women’s roles were changing to reflect the growing suffrage movement and the increasing rights in the workplace, masculinity was being interrogated in opposition to femininity. One of the cartoons depicts a story about a wife, husband, and a hen. Here the husband is depicted as “hen-pecked”, too weak to stand up to his wife. The wife has overpowered him in the domestic and public sphere and now he must join the suffragettes. The exhibit does an excellent job of showing how early 20th-century magazine publications were interrogating these questions of gender through cartoons. Using humor as a way of deflecting the growing anxiety about the reordering of masculinity and femininity in the United States.