Among several images dating back to World War II, Mouly showed a 1941 illustration by artist William Cotton, in which a group of young women escorted by a chaperone, their eyes wide with fright, encounter a group of ogling sailors. Like many other covers at the time, the image portrayed young women as fragile and in need of protection. It is a joke about sexual harassment, said Mouly, but “the joke is on the fear of the girls, not the interest of the boys,” added Spiegelman.
Even as women began to enter the workforce to aid the war effort, New Yorker covers continued to show them as helpless, incapable, or domestic. While a government campaign encouraging women to enter the factory workforce promoted feminist icon Rosie the Riveter, whose likeness, dressed for work in coveralls and a red bandana and showing off her flexed muscle, was reproduced all over the United States, the New Yorker’s version, a 1943 illustration by Rea Irvin, showed a pampered woman clad in fitted coveralls, the bandana in her hair tied in a bow, admiring her reflection in a hand mirror while her maids straighten her bow and bring her a toolbox and gloves. The image fell back on stereotypes about women, rather than their lived realities as factory workers and in other home front jobs, such as flying military airplanes, driving trucks, and operating hydraulic presses.
Irvin’s cover embodied “all of the prejudices and preconceptions that are so deeply seated and so ambient that we barely notice them,” Mouly said.
Fast forward some 75 years to Abigail Gray Swartz’s illustration of Rosie the Riveter as a strong black woman, published on the cover of the February 5, 2017, issue to celebrate the Women’s Marches of January 21, 2017. It shows Rosie clenching her bicep and donning a pink Pussyhat, the knitted caps that became a sign of women’s dissatisfaction with the election of Donald Trump as U.S. President.
Women as Parents
Images of mothers also evolved to convey a more egalitarian and inclusive understanding of parenthood. A 1942 image shows a young, upper-class bride riding in the back of a cab as she looks out the window, in visible horror, at a large brown-skinned family. Even in 2000, an image by Carter Goodrich shows a figure who represents Mother Nature, seated with her four children, as a sad professional woman clutches her briefcase, contrasting women’s “natural” function with a woman pursuing a career. And as recently as 2008, an illustration by Barry Blitt shows a woman staring longingly at babies romping like puppies in the window of a pet store as her husband drags her away, an image that already feels dated, given men’s growing embrace of fatherhood.
More recent New Yorker
covers have expanded our visual vocabularies with a broader scope of images of mothers, especially working mothers. The most powerful image—Hillary Clinton assuming her post in the West Wing—never made it to print, but other, more subtler ones, have shown us that there is no single mold for a parent, and that women’s identities can extend far beyond their role as a mother. For example, a 1998 cover by Mouly’s husband and Nadja’s father, comics legend
, shows a woman in a hard hat and work boots, proudly breastfeeding at a construction site. The image challenges us to reconsider what for so long has been the collective archetype of the workers building our skyrises—the famous 1932 shot of 11 male ironworkers breaking for lunch along a steel beam some 800 feet high in the sky while building New York’s Rockefeller Center.