Living Your Dreams

This is the text of a talk that I gave this spring, along with some of the cartoons I showed, for an organization called Generations. They asked me to speak about “Living Your Dreams.”


I’m going to talk a little about how I became a cartoonist and what obstacles I encountered, and then how I feel communication between generations is vitally important for women’s success.

This is where it all begins. We have to admit that things are stacked against us from the git go. Right? How many of you feel pressured by pink?

Not just by other little girls, but by our culture. But we can overcome this color oppression, and wear any color we want, proudly.

Along with the visual demands of being a woman, I find there is always something expected of us, we don’t find time to think for ourselves.

With all the pressures and distractions, it’s hard to achieve what you think you want, I am indeed living my dreams, and I was able to avoid pink and learn to ignore all the chatter around me telling me what to be. I’m a living, breathing professional cartoonist. And a woman. There aren’t many of us.

When I was real little, I didn’t know what I wanted to be. It’s not easy for us girls, back then particularly. There weren’t many options as to what you could become: teacher, nurse, secretary, homemaker.

Now there are plenty more options, but still, the expectations for perfection are steep. You can overcome these expectations and do what you want to do—if I did, all women should be able to. I hate to say it, but frankly, if I knew then what I know now, it would have been easier. That’s why we need to help younger women. Even if we may not understand their dreams, at times.

Now, maybe your dream is to look like Sarah Palin. How can my story help you? I don’t think it can. But what I can do is tell you that nothing is impossible. And while my dream may seem far removed from yours, I don’t think that’s true.  I dreamed of being a cartoonist since I was a child, and it has taken me a long time to get here.

I never expected to be 55. No one told me this would happen, not to me. But here I am. And while I have never been a man, I am pretty certain that age is more of a problem for us than it is for men. Not that men aren’t pissed off at getting older, I know they are and don’t show it.  But they are still considered attractive at 60, while women, often considered attractive as well, become, well, non-women.  “Woman’ is defined by our culture as young  and child-bearing.  No matter our age, who we are is scripted by those around us.  We have to take control of that definition…AND work harder at defining ourselves.It’s time to stop letting the media and culture tell us who we are. I have been trying all my life to figure out who I am, as a woman and a creative person. it has taken me 55 years to come to peace with myself and the world around me.  I had a lot of great years on my youth, and I don’t regret anything—well, maybe that guy I dated in 1982.  But this age is the time I feel the most content.

Why? Because I finally let go of letting others define me, and I have no fear of expressing myself now.

Let me tell you my story, and how I got here. I grew up in Washington, DC during the civil rights movement, assassinations,  Watergate, and the Feminist Movement. It was a time of big change, difficult for everyone.  I was a terribly shy, quiet child and my father—who is a great dad and loved me dearly– really wanted a boy. It was a running joke in our family, but nonetheless true. I went to baseball games, driving ranges, fishing. in retrospect, I admire him for this, for not trying to pigeonhole me into a gender role. And I loved the attention at the time.   My mother, also a great mother, did not take me shopping nor do girly things. My older sister was a force unto herself, doing her own thing.

She was constantly acting out and getting into trouble. So much of my youth was spent trying not to be her, and trying to please my parents, trying to make them laugh because she was a big problem. I was constantly listening to what others—parents, peers, culture– were telling me what I was.

What saved me in my quietness was that I was always drawing, One day, my mother gave me a copy of cartoons by James Thurber and a sheet of paper. I began tracing his wonderful drawings, and fell in love. it also made my mother and father laugh—and that was all the encouragement I needed.

I soon developed my own style of cartoons, and….found a place for my self. I was an ‘artist’. I intuitively discovered that I didn’t need to wear high heels or pink, and still get approval from my peers and my parents.

I went to college and majored in art, then moved to New York City,  got a day job, and  I kept cartooning. My early days in the city were fun, but rough. My mother died just after I arrived, and I had no role models. It was the eighties, and the media was grasping that women were working a lot more, following the feminist efforts of Gloria Steinem and others. Tons of articles appeared in papers and magazines about ‘working women’ and advice was doled out in fistfuls. What to wear…

…how to act and what to say. Get yourself a mentor. I thought I needed to buy a suit, because that’s what the magazines told me—It was hideous. Black and with a long skirt to my ankles. I never wore it. I also thought I needed a briefcase—because that’s what the media told me I needed as a professional woman. It was nice, but totally nonfunctional for what I did. I used it a few times as a purse, and then there it sat, along with the suit,  in the closet.

I was not aware that there were any cartoonists who were women at the time—it was and still is a very male dominated field. So I worked, and I drew, and began submitting my work to The New Yorker. At this time, I discovered that there was indeed a woman drawing cartoons for The New Yorker. Her name is Nurit Karlin, an Israeli by birth. But it wasn’t just her being a woman, although that was important for me to notice finally, but it was how she was drawing. Her work is simple and unique and political. And that is exactly what I wanted to do. Since college, I had always wanted to be a political cartoonist, but didn’t feel I had the opinions—they were so pushed down underneath my desire to please, I couldn’t’ find them. Seeing Nurit’s work, I was encouraged, inspired, spurred on. After  few years, I was finally able to sell a cartoon to The New Yorker.

The art editor at the time, Lee Lorenz, who brought Nurit into the magazine, also bought my work and Roz Chast’s work a few months before me.  I don’t believe he was looking for women cartoonists per se, but rather extending his search to cartoonists with a different voice. He was not simply maintaining the status quo of cartooning, which for years had been male-dominated  (The New Yorker had women cartoonists in the early years, but they had disappeared in the 50’s). In 1979 then, there were three women drawing cartoons for The New Yorker, and a hundred or so men.

My career lurched along, as I sold very few to the magazine in those early years. I was dating a lot, trying to figure out my voice as a cartoonist and my voice as a person. Then, just when I thought I might quit cartooning, as well as quit dating—there was a change. The senior editorship of The New Yorker changed. My new editor began buying work of mine that resonated with me—when you draw weekly cartoons, you are always trying new things. The editor was Tina Brown, and the work she liked and bought of mine were cartoons with women speaking, and feminist.

copyright Liza Donnelly and The New Yorker Magazine

I had stumbled on a mentor—I only met Tina once, but her encouragement made me soar. Now, we have a new editor at The New Yorker, and my cartoons there are not necessarilyfeminist, but I find I try to do cartoons at times with two women speaking.

copyright Liza Donnelly and The New Yorker Magazine

Or instead of having the everyman be a man, I make him a woman

copyright Liza Donnelly and The New Yorker Magazine

In recent years, I have found the Internet to be liberating. I have published countless cartoons on various sites, as well as my blog, that The New Yorker did not want. Cartoons about everything, but also feminist cartoons, political cartoons and particularly cartoons about the election.

I did a lot about the Supreme Court:

And other issues about women:

After  years of struggling and searching, I have now found a way to be myself as a cartoonist, person and a woman.  Since I was a little girl, I think I internally kept looking for places to be, people to ‘listen’ to my work. I never gave up. I found a metaphorical space, a room of my own……and clung to it through many changes. As I got older, I began to realize that my ideas were just as good as the next guy. my shyness of youth blossomed in my cartoons, and now has faded away completely.

When we are young, we may think we don’t need help. In my youth, I was happy for the feminist advances,  thankful to Gloria Steinem, but felt that all was fine.  Also, when we are young we are reacting to  our elders. We don’t want to be our mothers.We don’t want to look like them, act like them, we struggle not to be them. I know I was reacting to my mother’s condition of NOT having a career, NOT finding her place. Lucky for me, it motivated me. But the problem is, in our reactions, many of us end up making the same mistakes they did. And the cycle continues. It took me years to fully understand that the advances for women won in the sixties were not enough. That in many ways, for American women, the changes need to come within us.

My work with international cartoonists—both men and women– has taught me that there are many feminisms, not just one. That what it means to be a woman in  Saudi Arabia is both similar and dissimilar to what it means to be a woman in the US.

We can’t force our ideals on others. And this is true of feminism.I suggest that we think of the generations that way; If you are my age, and baffled by what young women do and think now…

…consider them as foreigners. Listen to them and don’t assume that just because they are not acting like you (did in the 60’s), it doesn’t mean they don’t hold the same values as you do. They are in a different place and culture. Conversely, young people should consider their elders to be of a different place, also. Listen to them, try to understand what they went through and are going through. This generational divide is what has been keeping us women back (well, one thing): each generation comes of age and thinks anew that all is well. It’s time to recognize this and not buy into the acrimony the media perpetuates.   Each generation of women has to go through the same difficulties. But it is hard to do this if you don’t know who you are. Listen to yourself and don’t give up. Find people who understand you and don’t let them go. Laugh at yourself and understand that others are going through pretty much the same thing you are. As you develop your voice, our culture may not hear it right away because dominant thought is not prone to hearing anything that is not of the status quo. Don’t listen to what our culture is telling you to be.  With persistence and self-belief, one can find oneself  and be heard.

Don’t listen to the mainstream media, the women’s magazines in particular. We women have amazing antennae, we understand our culture in nuanced ways. Use your antennae to create the new.

We can be powerful change agents.

And while it may have taken me 30 years to fully find my voice, it was worth it. We have to find out who we are first, before we can be truly powerful.

Let’s help empower future leaders now.


About Liza Donnelly

Cartoonist and writer and live drawer for The New Yorker, CBS News. Speaker for TED and others. Books: Women On Men,
This entry was posted in From the Book, Random but Relevant and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Living Your Dreams

  1. Emily says:

    What a wonderfully inspirational talk. I’d have loved to be amongst the audience when you delivered it!

  2. Rob Husberg says:

    After following your work for eons – I love your humor AND your fabulous
    drawing style – I have decided, after much soul-searching, to no longer hold it
    against you that you’re a woman. (Kidding!!!) You’re simply a damn good
    cartoonist, one of the best, period – regardless of gender. Terrific presentation!

  3. Karin says:

    Love love LOVE! everything! in “Living your dreams”. Definitley sharing with my two daughters (17 and 19), sisters, and girlfrens.
    So much info to sift through during the course of a lifetime. At 53 I often times feel I know only one thing for certain: the older I get, the less I realize I know.
    Cheers! ~ Karin

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