by Gloria Kaufman (pp. 13-16 of Pulling Our Own Strings)

It is easy to identify overtly political humor as feminist ("Rock the boat, not the cradle" or "A woman's place is in the White House"). We need, however, a definition that encompasses indirect and subtle feminist humor as well as the obvious kinds.

Feminist humor is based on the perception that societies have generally been organized as systems of oppression and exploitation, and that the largest (but not the only) oppressed group has been the female. It is also based on conviction that such oppression is undesirable and unnecessary. It is a humor based on visions of change.

The persistent attitude that underlies feminist humor is the attitude of social revolution -- that is, we are ridiculing a social system that can be, that must be changed. Female humor may ridicule a person or a system from an accepting point of view (“that's life”), while the nonacceptance of oppression characterizes feminist humor and satire. The following anecdote exemplifies feminist humor:

It was New Year's Eve of 1961. At a lively party in Watertown, Massachusetts, a psychiatrist was conversing with an attractive divorced woman.

“So you have only one child?”

“Yes,” she said, “a four-year-old.”

“That means,” he said, magnanimously sharing his expertise, “that you don't yet know what it means to be a mother.”

"Well, then,” she returned, “when you have a child, I’m sure you’ll tell me.”

The professional man is playing an authority role, but the woman does not accept the authority he assumes for himself. Her remark, which exhibits an amused awareness of his intellectual limitation, clearly demonstrates the feminist stance of nonacceptance. In contrast, the Lithuanian joke that follows is an example of female (nonfeminist) humor:

A farmer loudly asserted to his wife that she did not enjoy the same rights in the house as he. She was a mere woman, not a member of mankind. The next day, when he was putting on his boots, she heard him curse.

"What's the matter, dear?"

"There's shit in my boot, God damn it!"

"Was it the cat, dear?"

"No -- it's not cat stuff."

"Perhaps the dog?"

"No, no, no! It's human."

''Human, is it? Then it was I.''

The farmer's wife accepts her bad marriage as a norm. She is powerless to change things, and she can only express her resentment in a destructive, sarcastic way. The bitterness and the antimale feelings of the wife are frequently seen in female humor but occur far less often in feminist humor. Perhaps that is because the entrapped female regards her husband as the inevitable oppressor, whereas the feminist perceives him ultimately as a person who can or who will change (or as a person she can leave). Feminist humor tends to be a humor of hope, female humor of hopelessness. (This is not to contend that bitterness is absent from feminist humor, merely that, compared to female humor, it occurs much less regularly.)

It will not be clear to most readers without an explanation why some humor is feminist. Why, for example, isn't the menstruation humor in "Rhythm Reds" female (rather than feminist) humor? It might have been. If the humor were created with the idea that menses is dirty, smelly, ugly, and shameful (the traditional attitude that society has inculcated), it would have been female humor. Since, however, the underlying attitude is that menses is normally and naturally female; since, moreover, the attitude is that menses is not to be hidden (as shameful) but to be joked about (as normal) or even celebrated (as naturally female), the humor is deeply feminist. Not by explicit statement but by implicit posture, the expression of such humor attacks the unhealthy and oppressing idea cultivated for thousands of years that women's bodies are foul. There is, of course, a great deal of menstruation humor that is female or male rather than feminist, but such humor has been excluded from our collection.

Feminist satire, like other satire, is didactic and often overtly so. No matter how pessimistic it sounds, it seeks to improve us by demonstrating -- through devices of irony, of exaggeration, of sarcasm, and of wit -- our human folly. It exposes realities not merely out of love for truth but also out of desire for reform. Whether or not reforms are achieved, they are implicit ideals. In this sense, feminist satire, like feminist humor, is founded on hope and predicated on a stance of nonacceptance.

Stereotypes are accepted norms upon which a great deal of mainstream humor is built. Mother-in-law jokes, for example, are understood when the stereotype -- that of an interfering and intrusive relative -- is conceded. Feminist humor does not respond by creating father-in-law jokes. Since it arises from a subculture that has no patience with stereotyping, especially in relation to sex roles, we should not be surprised at the tendency of feminist humor to avoid stereotypic characters. Actions, however, do become stereotyped in feminist humor. There is much material based on typical limitations of the male. Masculine illogic, for example, is a favorite target. In such humor the man may be a doctor or a check-out boy, old or young, educated or not – but his penchant for illogic is not automatically linked to other identifying traits in the way that "interfering" and "overbearing" are linked to mother-in-law. That particular human behavior might be regarded as typed behavior, but the character who commits the behavior is not a stereotyped character.

In the early 1970s, it did look as if one feminist stereotype might emerge -- the male chauvinist pig (MCP). His existence, however, was relatively shortlived. And he was not universally accepted in feminist circles. (A sizeable minority objected to the "reduction" of man to four-legged animal. Another minority saw no reason to insult the pig.) Characterizations of that brief stereotype can be seen in ''The Male Chauvinist Pig Calendar" (1974) by Betty Swords (see pp. 15, 108, 114, and 131). Most of the references to the MCP that I came across were, curiously, not from feminists but from men – especially from men in the media. The journalistic practice of reducing feminist issues to slogans and catch-words has done much to trivialize complex issues raised by the women's movement. MCP served that purpose. It appealed to the imagination of males in the media: "I used to be an MCP," or (on interview shows with a feminist guest), "Do you think I'm an MCP?" Readers will find only a few MCP references in our collection. The male chauvinist pig actually derives from the protest rhetoric of the 1960s. The "pig," the visible oppressor, frequently a policeman, became MCP when rebelling feminists tried to show their fellow male protestors that oppression of women was a fact of life in everyday radical politics. That MCP is definitely a derived stereotype rather than an original creation. We note his demise with no sorrow.

An unwarranted expectation of stereotypes accounts, I believe, for the nervous response of many men to the term "feminist humor." They have assimilated the misogyny of male humor, and with some guilt they expect that feminist humor will return their treatment in kind. Let us be clear about how the female is treated in mainstream (male) humor. It has taken many centuries to produce the stereotypical female of male comedy. By A.D. 101, in Juvenal's "Sixth Satire," the female stereotype is firmly defined as nasty, lying, vicious, pretentious, emasculating, garrulous, aggressive, vulgar, nymphomaniacal, gluttonous, dishonest, shameless, greedy, selfish, quarrelsome, impertinent, and disgusting. Notably absent in Juvenal is the idea of woman as stupid and ineffectual. Instead, she is offensively intelligent -- the legitimate castrating bitch. When we add stupidity and ineffectuality to the Juvenalian list, we have a fairly complete picture of the stereotypical woman targeted by male humorists.

Many men assume incorrectly that feminists have created, as a counter or opposing stereotype, a nasty and oppressive male as repulsive and disgusting as their stereotypic female. That assumption is perhaps founded on an unacknowledged belief on men’s part that women are, after all, just like men and that we will act exactly as they do when we attain positions of power. But we do not have historical precedent for determining how women in power will act.

The exceptional women who have "ruled" (Elizabeth I of England, Catherine the Great, Golda Meir) nonetheless functioned in traditionally patriarchal worlds. They dealt not with an assortment of men and women, they dealt not with other women, but they dealt mostly or even exclusively with men committed to established hierarchical power systems. The idea that a single woman can ignore or change the entire patriarchal social order is ludicrous, but it is an argument that antifeminists are quick to offer. It is, therefore, interesting to see that given the freedom to go in our own direction, women do so. Feminist humor is NOT the obverse of male humor. If it is true that people are revealed through their humor, our collection is an important document that testifies to a difference, if not between female and male, at least between feminist female and mainstream male. Feminist humor and satire demonstrate that culturally we have not been doing what the male does. It may be that politically our ways will also be our own.

Even more than humor, satire tends to rely heavily on stereotypical characters. In "New Discoveries Hailed as Birth Control Breakthroughs,'' Jane Field satirizes behavior, not an individual. Virginia Woolf in Three Guineas (perhaps the most sustained and elegant piece of sarcasm in the English language) does not approach the terrain of stereotype. In Una Stannard's sophisticated burlesque, ''Why Little Girls Are Sugar and Spice and When They Grow Up Become Cheesecake,'' a parody of the entire process of history and of scholarship, the stereotyping so natural to burlesque (compare Dostoevski's "The Crocodile") is not even a factor. In each of these feminist works behavior is satirized and stereotypical men are not invented to commit the objectionable behaviors. Quite to the contrary. Virginia Woolf wittily examines the statements of British philosopher C. E. M. Joad, a real figure rather than a contrived stereotype. Una Stannard quotes the poet Byron rather than invent a foolish statement to put into the mouth of an available stereotype.

Feminist humor and satire are not new. Perhaps the best-known example of both dates from the 5th century B.C. In Aristophanes' Lysistrata, the women of Athens and Sparta force the men to make peace by withdrawing sexual favors from their husbands, whose desires for sexual activity ultimately overpower their desires to make war. The play presents men as incompetent in their roles as leaders of state and reveals women as having a more valid social perspective. Women are not idealized. They also have their pugnacious side, and they are ready physically to do battle with men. When the Chorus of Old Men attempts to smoke the striking women out of the Acropolis, a counter-Chorus of Old Women appears, and there is a fight between the men with the burning torches and the women with pitchers of water. When the men’s torches are extinguished, they complain to the magistrate: “Besides their other violent acts, they threw water all over us, and we have to shake out our clothes just as if we’d leaked in them.” [1]

In the comic tradition, women battle with household supplies, no one gets hurt, and responsible social action follows. Mother Jones's labor-organizing activity comes from that tradition. In "How the Women Mopped Up Coaldale," a chapter of her autobiography, she recounts how she organized a female force armed with mops and brooms. The women faced a militia whose colonel threatened to charge with bayonets. The scene was worthy of Aristophanes, but the union struggle was no prewritten play with a guaranteed safe outcome. Mother Jones used humor to defuse a situation in which danger was terribly real. In the Coaldale battle (which she described as "a great fight"), she led her army to the militia's headquarters and had them eat the soldiers' breakfasts. Like Aristophanes, she was a master of comic irony -- he the writer, she the practitioner.

Mai Zetterling, in her film The Girls (1968), again focuses feminist attention on Aristophanes' Lysistrata. Not only does she invoke and reinforce Aristophanes' themes, but she also addresses contemporary feminist issues satirically. The film presents an acting group on tour with Aristophanes' play. Zetterling shows the twentieth-century audience (at the time of the Vietnam war) to be still unreceptive to the antiwar sentiment of Lysistrata. Turning to modern issues, she treats contemporary sexual relations with dry wit. In a hotel bedroom, for example, a touring actress asks her businessman-husband about his mistress, who is physically present as a mannikin. As the husband stuffs the mistress-mannikin into a large trunk (with the wife watching), he insists there is no other woman. The trunk-stuffing involves much physical contact between husband and mistress (compared to no contact with the wife). The sequence, which is well executed, is funny as plain slapstick. But it also implies that he regards the mistress entirely as object (in that sense, there really is no other woman). The visual treatment of woman-as-object has never been done more imaginatively. With subtlety Zetterling also suggests that the wife and the mistress share similar problems (vis-a-vis men) as well as a common humanity. There is a magical sympathy between them. We see the wife as a person of civilized complexity, the husband as superficial and farcical. To treat farce, which is based on crudely obvious exaggeration, with such complex subtlety is fine and rare art.

Between Aristophanes and Zetterling there is a space of more than two millennia. It is not an empty space. A history of feminist humor is in order, but that is far beyond the space and the scope of my introductory remarks. It will require a volume of its own. To comment only on the recent past in the United States, we note that the suffrage movement created its share of platform wits -- Anna Howard Shaw, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, Harriot Stanton Blatch, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, to mention a few. Marietta Holly (who is not in our collection) and Fanny Fern (who is included) wrote as declared feminist humorists. Their issues are today's issues. Although the tradition of feminist humor continued into the twentieth century, the current movement, which emerged in the '60s and has produced so much humor and satire of its own, seems to have lost touch with the earlier feminist humor tradition. We are largely unaware of the wit of the early suffragists as well as the "new suffragists" of our own century. We don't remember the feminist wit that flourished in the flapper age, and much of the work of the '30s and '40s, such as Ruth Herschberger's "Josie Takes the Stand" (1948), Dorothy Sayers' "The Human-Not-Quite-Human" (1947), and even Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas (1938), is not widely known. Although our collection is a highly selected sampler, not an anthology that can be used to reconstruct a history of feminist humor, perhaps it will inspire such an effort.

Feminist humor is richly various, but a dominant undercurrent is the pickup, an obvious reversal of the putdown. In some cases pickups happen in response to putdowns ("A woman's place is in the home" generates "A woman's place is everyplace"). Some pickups are extended. The last sentence of Gabrielle Burton's "No One Has a Comer on Depression But Housewives Are Working on It" is a calculated pickup. Naomi Weisstein closes her long standup-comic routine, "The Saturday Night Special: Rape and Other Big Jokes,'' with a deliberate pickup. Such humor is a healthy contrast to mainstream humor, most of which seems to knock people down -- or to laugh at people who are already down. Laughs come from a perceived superiority of the hearer or reader to the character ridiculed. Pickup humor, however, is based on equity. Through it, we do not laugh at people, we bond with them.

One of the best and most popular pickups of the movement is Flo Kennedy's remark, "A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle." Our society has asserted and reinforced the idea that no woman is complete until she finds her "other half' and unites in heterosexual marriage. Society says, "You are half." Kennedy says, "You are whole." It is interesting (but not surprising) that many men take this powerful and clever pickup of women to be an indictment of men as both unnecessary and worthless. Rather, it defies a system that tells woman she is singly incomplete; in a larger sense it is a revolutionary celebration of woman alone. It ignores rather than attacks men.

The selections in Pulling Our Own Strings were made chiefly on the basis of quality, but there were other major criteria. We were unable to get permissions for all of the material we wanted to use. Limitations of space forced us to reject other good material, including some of our favorite pieces. Although we did try to give a sense of the variety of forms, of approaches, and of subject-matters, we cannot offer a comprehensive sampler that fairly represents the rich variety of both feminist humor and feminist satire. Our selections have been deliberately weighted toward the humor at the expense of the satire -- not because feminist satire is less interesting or less distinguished, but because we feel that at this moment in its history, the feminist movement needs to share its humor even more than its satire, which has already found an audience through print.

Feminists are not simply angry women. As persons, we are complex: we are as likely to explode with laughter as with anger; we are as likely to write satirical essays as to circulate petitions; and we value all aspects of our feminism -- our street actions and our scholarship, our poetry and our doggerel, our anger and our laughter.

The world is always humor-poor. There is never enough of it. Yet, without humor we cannot survive. Our world is too relentlessly cruel, too callous too uncivilized, and feminists who contemplate it will die of depression or lapse into cynicism and inaction without our humor. By joking, we rehumanize, recivilize ourselves. By joking, we remake ourselves so that after each disappointment we become once again capable of living and loving.

[1] tr. Charles T. Murphy, Ten Greek Plays, ed. L. R. Lind, Cambridge, Mass.: Riverside Press, 1957, p. 381.