Take that, Mr Darwin

Jacky Fleming's latest book The Trouble with Women opens with the epigraph 'Take nobody's word for it', the motto of the Royal Society. It is a nugget of wisdom that seems very apposite in our post-truth modern world '“ and it could as easily describe Fleming's approach in puncturing accepted myths. A feminist cartoonist and illustrator whose pithy work has appeared in numerous publications including the Guardian, the Observer, the New Statesman and the Big Issue, Fleming was first published in the feminist magazine Spare Rib in 1978 when she submitted a cartoon while still an art student at the University of Leeds.

By Jacky Fleming, feminist cartoonist and illustrator

Her books include the classics Demented and Falling in Love, Never Give Up and Be a Bloody Train Driver and she also creates wonderfully caustic and humorous greetings cards – one of my favourites depicts a woman standing at the head of the table at a dinner party, while bemused guests with empty plates look on as she declares: “No food. Couldn’t be bothered.”

The Trouble with Women is her first book in over a decade and presents a characteristically sharply observed look at some of the many high-achieving women over the centuries who have been forgotten or, as Fleming puts it, “consigned to the dustbin of history”. It is, as always, very funny but at the same time makes a serious point. What all the women have in common is that they have all overcome obstacles to excel against the odds in various areas of intellectual, scientific and artistic endeavour – and we probably haven’t heard of them.

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While Fleming conveys this with a dry detachment and a fabulously knowing guilelessness that often makes you laugh out loud, you can feel the totally justified anger bubbling under the surface. That emotion is, she admits, what frequently drives her to create.

“It is normally anger or a feeling of being helpless,” she says over a coffee at her home in Otley. “I am always aiming at something – I have a target.” And she frequently hits the bullseye, combining, to great effect, the personal and the political.

She had been planning a book for a while and had pulled together lots of ideas and notes, but then one evening she watched a TV documentary about the 1950s New York art scene which proved to be a bit of a catalyst. “I was very aware that not a single woman artist had been mentioned – and this was being presented as an accurate version of events,” she says. “I had been thinking about male genius before that – the notes I was making were entitled ‘the irritating history of male genius.’”

After watching that programme Fleming began some research. She googled “can women be geniuses?” and came across Darwin’s theory that women definitely could not because of their “biological inferiority”. “I was absolutely stunned,” says Fleming. “He was one of the most respected scientists in the world at the time, so people would naturally assume that what he said was true.”

As a child Fleming was constantly drawing and she remembers being fascinated by cartoons from an early age and there were two influences in particular – she was a big fan of the Scottish cartoonist and illustrator John Glashan, whose work she used to collect, and also liked Ronald Searle’s St Trinian’s cartoons.

After graduating from university Fleming created some images for Leeds Postcards and was surprised by how many she sold. She started publishing her own, sent some to a number of different publishers, not expecting any response – and received several offers. “That was a real shock,” she says. “That’s when I had to start taking it seriously.”

Another key factor in developing her style further was thanks to some friends who had set up Spare Tyre Theatre Company, making ground-breaking theatre that asked difficult questions of society, but which contained a strong vein of humour. “They taught me you don’t always have to be serious about serious issues,” she says.

Having collected all her ideas together for The Trouble with Women she sat down to write. “It took me nine months and during that time I did nothing else, I was very disciplined. In a way I’m quite sad not to still be in it because it was a great place to be.”

Doing the research for the book, however, also revealed to Fleming what she feels is a huge gap in her own education. “The book is really about the exclusion of women, in the most fundamental way, from our awareness. What impact has it had on my life not to know about these women? I think the implications of not knowing are vast.”

The Trouble with Women by Jacky Fleming is out now, priced at £9.99.