It is a pleasure to introduce to our readers a new contributor to Persimmon Tree — and the Guest Art Editor for this issue of our journal. A former curator in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress and author of the award-winning book Drawn to Purpose: American Women Illustrators and Cartoonists (2018), Martha H. Kennedy brings to our pages deep knowledge and appreciation for the brilliant contributions American women have made to the visual arts. Like Marilyn Church, the artist I profiled in the Spring 2023 issue of our journal—and like so many multifaceted women artists—the subject of Kennedy’s article, Barbara Dale, has invested years in creating art in different realms, challenging and enriching our perception of the world around us.


The Working Woman Book, 1985, page 11



“Working Woman”: Barbara Dale, Cartoonist and Fine Artist

Who was one of the first to depict a twentieth-century working woman in cartoons that primarily feature the daily stress and angst of women struggling to balance career and home life in the 1980s? Consider the ground-breaking Working Woman character drawn by Barbara Dale, cartoonist and multi-faceted fine artist. Her heroine wears a business suit, holds a briefcase, cradles a baby, and smiles bravely on page 11 of The Working Woman Book: Or How To Be Everything to Everybody, the book that Barbara and her then-husband, writer Jim Dale, co-created and published in 1985. Characters physically similar to her appear in the Dales’  second book, The Joys of Motherhood, in 1987, and their comic strip, The Stanley Family, that debuted in 1990.


Prior to these publications, the couple had established Dale Enterprises, Inc., a successful line of alternative, “edgy” greeting cards, a business that also developed spin-off products from their creations. Barbara has headed this ongoing business since 1996, when she purchased her former husband’s minority share of stock. In addition to the sharp humor that runs through the books and strip, feminist themes sometimes appear in them—and in the fine art Barbara created later. Over four decades, she has also contributed her artistic and entrepreneurial skills to charitable projects, continued developing her technical skills in fine art media, and created fine art drawings, prints, and ceramics, shared through her website and exhibitions.


Cover, The Working Woman Book…, 1985.  Cover, The Joys of Motherhood, 1987.


Following soon after the success of the Dales’ first cartoon book, Andrews and McMeel published their second, The Joys of Motherhood (1987), which offers an amusing, engaging tribute to stay-at-home mothers, showing them coping with the chaos and challenges that inevitably arise in raising children. Working Woman, the Dales’ ground-breaking character in the first book, comments with wry humor on the common predicament faced by many American women in the 1980s and1990s, when thousands were entering the work force outside the home. Frazzled yet determined, Working Woman reflected women’s struggles to balance the pursuit of cherished career ambitions with the endless demands of domestic life. Striving to meet the requirements of both, a feat that many found almost impossible, working women were becoming exhausted and discouraged. To picture the often hectic, draining absurdity of women’s lives in ink and color, Dale chronicled many memorable, taxing moments commonly experienced by legions of working wives and mothers and drew upon her own life as working wife and mother as well.

On the cover (above) and on page 11 of The Working Woman Book (at the head of this article), Dale portrays her Working Woman holding a briefcase and wearing not only a business suit, but also a red superhero cape. She may be wearing one red boot for good luck, but it may also suggest a desire for extraordinary abilities, such as hidden superpowers. Pages that follow highlight and expose the ludicrous complexity of Working Woman’s daily life, detailing her humorously anguished efforts to balance the needs of domestic and family life with the at times unreasonable requirements of her workplace.


Working Woman Book…, 1985, page 29.


Dale fashions scenarios that capture widely familiar situations, such as being overwhelmed by responsibilities at home while also trying to juggle demands at work that include completing sick co-workers’ assignments, correcting new coworkers’ poor work as well as her own, and maintaining a  “dress-for-success” appearance. At home, Dale’s Working Woman often appears exhausted as she struggles with house cleaning, mountains of laundry, meal preparation, frantic racing to run errands and monitor children—though she does have some help from her husband. No matter how overextended and tired, she endures as the frazzled heroine of her workplace and domestic domain.

When the Dales launched their iconic character, their work joined that of several other women cartoonists who had created comic strips with female characters who worked outside the home—including Lynn Johnston’s For Better Or For Worse; Sylvia by Nicole Hollander; and Cathy by Cathy Guisewite. The Dales’ cartoon chronicle, however, stood apart from these other cartoonists’ features: their Working Woman’s struggles to balance both sides of her demanding life received far more detailed, sustained attention. Guisewite’s heroine, for example, is single during most of the comic’s long run and indicates little or no need to balance job responsibilities with minimal, nearly nonexistent domestic duties. Hollander portrays Sylvia, a stay-at-home mother who also works at home, as a character much more focused on composing and sharing commentary on the changing socio-political scene than on domestic tasks or employer’s demands. While Johnston’s Elly Patterson occasionally mentions feeling tired by the combination of work and domestic duties, such concern appears minor within the comic’s expansive, long-running family chronicle.

Some cartoonists seek recognition as both commercial and fine artists. Dale can claim to be both, as a multi-faceted artist with a feminist sensibility. The following examples of her cartoon and commercial work, fine art drawing and prints, and ceramics demonstrate her creative range. If one accepts a core definition of feminism as belief in the social, economic, and political equality of the sexes, examples of Dale’s art can also be seen as feminist or referencing themes of women’s history.

Three self-portraits illustrate Dale’s technical skill in quite varied media. Each piece conveys a different artistic effect.


Self-Caricature, c.1997. Pen and ink.


In this image, Dale depicts herself in the process of drawing a self-portrait. Both hands reach around the frame, one holding its edge and the other bending around it while holding a pen so that she can reach inside to finish drawing her head. A humorous image, “We Draw What We Are” also illustrates Dale’s perspective on practicing one form of art, casting herself as a cartoonist.


Self-Portrait, mid-1990s. Pastel.


In sharp contrast with “We Draw What We Are,” Dale executes this close-up view of her face and neck in a strikingly realistic style. She also uses areas of complementary colors effectively; the dark blue and red-orange set off or reinforce focus on her features. Looking directly and wistfully at us, she pushes the forefinger of each hand into either side of her cheek and keeps her mouth tightly closed. Is the placement of her hands intended to undercut her serious expression? Is this ambiguous image intended to suggest that she is repressing a desire to express herself by speaking or making a noise?


[Monoprint 1, 1996]


This monoprint presents a third and quite dramatic self-portrait. Dale’s wide-eyed, angry, and frightened gaze sharply registers her response to a deliberate physical act meant to silence her, as manifested by the black hand print placed over her mouth and cheek. This portrait undoubtedly resonates with women who at times find themselves locked into similar types of situations, not uncommonly with men. The Self-Portrait in pastel, shown earlier, suggests possibly similar pressure to repress self-expression, but Monoprint 1 makes the repression explicit. Such messaging can be characterized as feminist and connects with themes in women’s history.


Hope, 2002. Etching. Edition of 10


This etching offers a strong contrast with the unsettling, dark mood of Monoprint I. Arising from a pool of dark ink and emerging from surrounding cloudiness, a beautifully rendered hand shows fingers crossed in a universal gesture of good luck, a majestic, even monumental presence. A standout technically and visually, this uplifting image demonstrates Dale’s technical skill in printmaking.


The Maternity Mug, c. 1977. Ceramic.


Dale began graduate study in ceramics at the Cranbrook Academy of Art over forty years ago and, before recently returning to working in clay, took a beginning class in ceramics at the Boca Raton Art Museum School. She produced The Maternity Mug, one of her earliest ceramic pieces, for commercial distribution and designed it while pregnant with her son. Dale has touted this piece on her website as a good luck charm for pregnant women. The mug sold very well and can still be purchased on eBay.


Woman Vessel #3, 2022. Ceramic. Detail of top.


Woman Vessel #3, the smallest in her Woman Vessel series, also features the theme of pregnancy. On each of four sides, she has drawn a well-developed infant in utero, each partly surrounded by darkness bordered by smaller baby forms. A detail of the top shows a secondary title, Expecting, an inscription “To Andy” (her son), and her signature inside.


Woman Vessel #1, 2022. Ceramic.


In Woman Vessel #1, Dale uses carefully applied line work to indicate legs and breasts. Her recent favorite, this ceramic featuring elegant drawing in harmony with the vessel’s graceful, gently swelling shape, reinforces the basic idea that Dale has stated governs the series: “woman’s body as a vessel of life.” The ceramic’s basic form and relatively large size remind one of a Greek amphora, albeit elongated. This ancient type of storage jug typically has two handles and a neck noticeably narrower than the body.

Collectively, Dale’s drawings of the ground-breaking Working Woman and stay-at-home mothers in cartoon books, her insightful self-portraits in drawings and prints, and her elegant ceramics underscore what she says has been an enduring theme in her work: exploring “what it means to be a woman.” Her distinctive voice and forms of expression have evolved and changed over time. These strong examples of her artistry in commercial and fine art media also contribute to a growing body of notable imagery of women by women, a compelling aspect of women’s history.



SPIRIT CAPTIVE, Jerusalem in Poetry, Prose and Paintings
by Helen Bar-Lev
      Spirit Captive is the impressive collection of poems, short stories, memories and artworks that Helen Bar-Lev presents to us as a declaration of her love for Jerusalem, a city harboring as much pain as pleasure. Through Helen's eyes, we see contested Jerusalem through the seasons and the hours, a city of exquisite beauty. To appreciate the real spirit of this work we should start from the end: reading the poem Spirit Captive, we can feel the bond that exists between the poet and her chosen city. We can also sense the universality of Jerusalem – the painful, sometimes suffering, beauty that permeates it. In A Love Poem to Jerusalem, Helen wonders if God created the sweet air of the city just to intoxicate her and if every stone or gate or flower may have been created as a source of inspiration for her paintings. This book is Helen's masterpiece, where her poems, prose and paintings pay magnificent tribute to Jerusalem.
— from the review by Lidia Chiarelli, President, Immagine & Poesia, Italy
    Available from BookBaby and, shipping now.


Cartoonist, graphic and ceramic artist Barbara Dale, born in 1951 in Louisville, Kentucky, completed a B.A. in English with departmental honors in 1973 from Oakland University and pursued graduate study in ceramics in 1976-1977 at the Cranbrook Academy of Art.  She has also studied at the Seattle Academy of Realist Art in Seattle, Johns Hopkins University, American Academy of Bookbinding in Telluride, and the Boca Raton Art Museum School. Her drawings and prints have been collected by the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at The Ohio State University, and the Newseum. She has exhibited her work in solo and group shows at the 819  Gallery, Fells Point, Maryland (1986); Essex Community College Art Gallery, Baltimore (1999); Politics and Prose, Washington, D.C. (2013); and the Sponder Gallery, Palm Beach, Florida (2022). In 2015, she received the Jack Davis Lifetime Achievement Award from the southeastern chapter of the National Cartoonists Society.  A retrospective of her work in multiple media is planned to open in June, 2023, at the Peale Community Museum in Baltimore. 

Martha H. Kennedy received a B.A. and M.A. in art history and a MLIS from UC Berkeley. During twenty years of curatorial work at the Library of Congress, she assisted researchers, oversaw the Swann Foundation Fellowship in caricature and cartoon, arranged public programs by acclaimed cartoonists and illustrators, contributed to developing the Library’s graphic art collections, and curated or co-curated exhibitions of cartoon and/or fine art, including “Timely and Timeless,” “The Gibson Girl's America,” “Art in Action: Herblock and Fellow Artists Respond to Their Times,” and “Cartoon America.” She has also curated exhibitions at the Great Plains Art Museum, Ogunquit Museum of American Art, and Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery. She has published many articles as well as the 2019 Eisner Award-winning book Drawn to Purpose: American Women Illustrators and Cartoonists.

Greta Berman received a B.A. from Antioch College, an M.A. from the University of Stockholm, and a Ph.D. from Columbia. She has been Professor of Art History at Juilliard since 1978. In addition to writing a monthly column, “Focus on Art,” for the Juilliard Journal, she co-curated and co-edited Synesthesia: Art and the Mind.  She has published numerous articles, as well as lectured on synesthesia and other subjects.  

One Comment

  1. What a wonderful, interesting article about working women. Barbara Dale’s cartoons really showed what it was like to work outside and inside the house, raise children and have a husband.

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