At a recent workshop, I was asked about humor, how to be funny. I regaled the group with stories about American female humorists with the caveat that I had not written the book on humorists. Then realized, hey, I but DID write my Master’s Thesis on them. Why not share a bit about the history of funny American woman?
From 1900 to about 1930. both male and female humorists focused on the “War between the Sexes”. This war concentrated on the contrast between what men wanted and what women delivered. But even though the male humorist claimed to be belittled and terrorized by his female companions and wives, he still held the political and financial power. And women knew it.
For women, the war between the sexes was less like a parlor game and more like trench warfare. No Man’s Land, the middle ground, was deserted and dangerous for any couple that dared venture into it. For years there would be no decisive victories.
The war between the sexes and the adventures of these new comic characters moved from the frontier and farm to the urban streets and onto the pages of new and increasingly more sophisticated periodicals. In the 1920s the generals of the war between the sexes were Dorothy Parker and Anita Loos.
Dorothy Parker emancipated women writers from the need to be nice, to hide their anger. Though her wit was often as her own expense, she nevertheless said what she thought. In fact, she paved the way for a new openness in humor – for housewives, for feminists, and for women who are both.
Indeed, by the 1940s two distinct streams of American women’s humor had emerged. The first, derived largely from the nineteenth-century domestic tradition, focused on the humorous aspects of women’s sphere: children, family chores, and homemaking. But only a decade after Marietta Holley’s last Samantha book, Dorothy Parker had already pioneered in the new stream of women’s humor: finding irony, humane humor, and radical criticism of patriarchal norms almost entirely in the world beyond the home.
Parker’s humor leads most directly to the feminist humor of such writers as Erica Jong, Toni Cade Bambara, Alix Kate Shulman, and Rita Mae Brown – while the domestic stream has produced Betty MacDonald, Phyllis McGinley, Peg Bracken and Erma Bombeck (Toth 207).
In Suzanne Bunker’s, “I am Outraged Womanhood”, she summaries Parker’s methodology:
In keeping with her purpose as a satirist, Parkers poems and short stories criticize the status quo rather than define new, three-dimensional female roles. As a result, her women characters generally evoke mixed reactions from the reader: they seem pitiable, yet they grate on the reader’s nerves. They appear to be victimized not only by an oppressive society but also by their inability to fight back against that society. […] she uses her pitiable, ridiculous women characters to criticize the society which has created one-dimensional female roles and forced women to fit into them (328).
Parker’s method, similar to Holley’s, was to create narrators and main characters who were weak women typifying the worst in passive acceptance of society. Parker did not necessarily need the reader to like her protagonists; she wanted the reader to get the point. Sound familiar? This was the beginning, but not the end. Not by a long shot.
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