Ethel Hays, Pioneering Female Cartoonist
Allan Holtz looks at the life and career of trailblazing cartoonist Ethel Hays.
The current fashion in academia is to discuss cartoonists in terms of their race or gender. In some cases, the work of the cartoonist invites such categorization. Aaron McGruder, for instance, is a black cartoonist, and his race is a defining component of his work on The Boondocks. Similarly, Trina Robbins uses her gender to inform her cartooning work, which often uses feminism as a subject. Academia aside, though, no matter what ethnic or gender cards a cartoonist might hold, the trump card is always talent. Cartoonists are judged by their readers based on the merit of their creations, not on their creator’s DNA.
The newspaper cartooning profession has been lucky to boast a healthy contingent of women practitioners throughout its history. Though their presence on newspaper and syndicate art staffs was, and sometimes still is, met with resistance from editors, they never faced the nearly insurmountable barriers that until recently were present for nonwhite cartoonists. The problem for women cartoonists has been that editors are interested in their work only for its appeal to women readers. Even today, editors look to women cartoonists mostly for their uniquely female perspective, giving little consideration to those who want to break the Cathy/Sylvia/Brenda Starr mold to create features with more general appeal.
Today women cartoonists are finally having some fledgling success in syndicating features that don’t specifically target women readers. Hilary Price’s Rhymes With Orange and Julie Larson’s The Dinette Set are fine examples. However, this is a very recent phenomenon and still the exception to the rule.
In the early decades of the 20th century, women cartoonists had very narrowly defined subject limits. They could take their pick of two genres of newspaper cartooning: cherubic children and animals having sugary adventures (Dimples, Dolly Drake And Bobby Blake, Kewpies, Pussycat Princess) or romance cartoons (as practiced by Nell Brinkley, Annette Bradshaw, Virgina Huget, Eleanor Schorer and a slew of others). Beyond this pair of niches was no-woman’s land. Those few who were permitted to break the mold, such as Fay King was, did so with modest success.
Ethel Hays worked in the era’s standard female genres yet rose above them. Her talent for cartooning was so great that her work had universal appeal even while working well within the accepted limitations. Eventually, though, her gender and her ability caused her stay in the cartooning fraternity to be far too short.
Ethel Hays was born in Billings, Mont., in 1892 and showed an interest in art from an early age. She was staff illustrator on her high school newspaper, The Kyote, and by then had already decided on a career in the art field. While her friends went off to finishing schools to become proper young ladies, Hays convinced her parents to send her to California to attend the Los Angeles School of Art and Design. She arrived at school with the idea of being an illustrator; her work at the time owed much to James Montgomery Flagg. Her instructors convinced her that she should instead apply herself to painting. She learned, in her words, “how to paint pretty pictures—never dreaming that I was no pretty picture painter.”
Recognized as the most promising student at the school, Hays won a scholarship to New York’s Art Students League. There she impressed instructor and famed painter Louis Mora with her sketchbook caricatures of people on the streets of New York City. Mora suggested that she cultivate this ability, but Hays would have none of it—she had been convinced in California that she should become a serious artist. Three years of fine art study in New York proved her worth for another scholarship, this time with the prestigious Julian Academy in Paris. However, World War I intervened and Hays’ studies came to an abrupt end.
Hays enrolled in Red Cross training in preparation for war work, but before the training was completed she heard of another pressing need, one for which she was well qualified. Military hospitals were searching for “reconstruction aides”—women who could instruct and entertain convalescing disabled soldiers. One needed specialty was for women who could teach basic art skills and provide ways for badly injured men to pass the time. If some of the men showed aptitude, so much the better for when they reentered civilian life. Hays loved this work and spoke of it often in interviews. “Many of the men I taught were so weak that they were allowed to exert themselves only a few minutes a day,” she said. “I loved the work and was delighted when they chose art as the way they wanted to spend this precious period of time.”
She recalled of one student, “I remember a man who was so ill that he had to lie flat on his back, most of his body in a cast. At first he could draw only fifteen minutes a day but later was permitted fifteen minutes in the morning and another fifteen in the afternoon. He was passionately fond of John Singer Sargent’s paintings and, with a drawing board arranged over the bed so he could work lying down, he learned to copy Sargent. So expert did he become that his art was shown at an art exhibit held at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York—an exhibit it was really an honor to be in.”
After six years of hospital work, Hays confronted a new situation. She was transferred to a hospital in Johnson City, Tenn., and went through the now-familiar procedures of setting up art classes. The soldiers were notified of the class and a full house showed up for their first instruction. When Hays asked what they’d like to learn how to paint, one soldier volunteered that he really wanted to learn how to draw cartoons. The rest of the vets liked the idea and echoed the sentiment. Hays was caught off guard. She knew how to teach painting, but she was no cartoonist and didn’t have a clue how to teach the subject. She reluctantly admitted to the soldiers that she couldn’t teach them cartooning and forged ahead with her normal instruction.
At the next lesson, Hays stood in an empty classroom. “I knew right then that I must do something drastic and do it right away, for I felt that I had a mission to keep those men occupied and happy.” She decided to solve the problem by enrolling herself in the Landon School, a cartooning correspondence course. “As soon as I mastered the first two lessons I told that group of men that I could teach them cartooning. Keeping a couple of lessons ahead, I carried them through the course.”
Hays not only came through for the convalescing soldiers; she also unwittingly found a booster in C.N. Landon himself. The head of the correspondence school was so impressed with her cartooning abilities that he showed samples of her work to H.B.R. Briggs, the editor of the Cleveland Press. Briggs agreed that Hays was a wonder and quickly wired her a job offer.
“I was frightened at the idea of doing newspaper illustrations and told the editor he must give me six months to attend special classes at art school and brush up for that exacting work,” she recalled. “He laughed at me and said he was offering me the job to start the very day my three weeks’ notice to the government was over. With fear and trembling I accepted, realizing that the entire course of my life and work had been changed by that course in cartooning.”
Hays got another surprise when she reported for work at the Cleveland Press in December 1923. She assumed that as a neophyte cartoonist her duties would initially be limited to touch-up and layout work. Instead, her assignment was to team up with a woman reporter on a new feature titled Vic And Ethel. Writer Victoria Benham contributed jazzy articles, human interest stories and celebrity interviews while Hays supplied the accompanying cartoons. The daily articles were purported first-person narratives of the madcap adventures of this wild flapper pair and their wacky adventures around Cleveland. The feature was an immediate hit, and Hays’ cartoons were no small part of its appeal.