For the past few years I’ve been working on a jolly-turned-serious side project, the representations of Academia in illustrated children’s fiction. I’ve written before on the fact that most fictional academics in picture books are male, mad and muddleheaded, but for Ada Lovelace Day 2016, the international celebration day of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths, I want to introduce the first female academic I have found so far in a text marketed towards children. For those who haven’t come across her before, please welcome the marvellous Professor Jocelyn Mabel Peabody, from the Dan Dare comic strip in the weekly Eagle magazine, a seminal UK comic launched in 1950 which attracted a huge readership.
Professor Peabody is a wonder. Appearing as regular side-kick to Dan Dare (the Pilot of the Future!) and Space Fleet’s permanent Special Advisor to the Exploration and Research Department from the first volume of Dan Dare, Issue 5, in 1950, she is presented as a fully fledged competent academic with a cast-iron backstory. It is important to note here how few women were working in places of Higher Education at the time of writing – 1950 – although the comic is set in the mid 1980s. The story is that the Earth is running out of food, and Dan Dare and his team are being sent to reconnoitre Venus as a source of food production. Here comes the Professor….
From her entrance, Professor Peabody is bad-ass. I’m limited in the comic cells I can show you here (given the copyright and permissions aspect), but let me give you some examples. Sir Hubert – the guy on the phone – takes Peabody in his ship to “keep an eye on her” and “make sure she doesn’t get in the way” – refusing to respect her training or qualifications:
Sir Hubert: “Miss Peabody! I insist that you come away from those controls immediately! THATS AN ORDER!”
Professor Peabody: “I’m sorry Sir Hubert, but you’re not as young as you used to be – and we may need steady nerves on this job”. Professor Peabody steals the ship… (Eagle Vol 1, No. 5, 1950).
Resourceful and confident, she often takes the lead when the men sit around and do very little. When they crash land on Venus, the crew are starving:
Dan Dare: “Right now I’m thinking of a big juicy steak, fried onions and potatoes”. He sits, head in hands.
Digby: “I’d settle for a fish and sixpennyworth with plenty of salt and vinegar!”. He is lying down.
Professor Peabody: Off gathering vegetation… “If you men opened your eyes and stopped dreaming you’d find plenty to eat… Look! fruit and nuts for the taking!” She shows them the bountiful vista.
Dan Dare: “But is it safe to eat?”
Professor Peabody: “Perfectly safe, according to the Peabody Pocket Tester, a little thing I designed when I was picked for the job”. (Eagle Vol 1, No. 26, 1950).
The men all run off and start gorging themselves.
Over and over again she does the math, saving the day, figuring out the twists in the plot, knowing when to use equipment, knowing the science, knowing the best course of action. She does this in the face of extreme refusal to believe that she is capable of doing anything: the team repeatedly call her Miss, or The Girl, and mansplain and manterrupt: “Easy old girl! These chaps know what they are doing!” (Eagle Vol 1, No. 13, 1950). She is treated differently because of her gender: “This is monstrous! in the name of humanity – you can’t sent a girl down a mine!” (Eagle Vol 2, No. 3, 1951). There is routine discrimination and even (remember this is a children’s comic!) a touch of harassment – she is regularly telling men to behave. She is shown to struggle with showing her emotions, crying when they are all told they will be killed by the Mekon “This is no way to behave, Jocelyn Peabody, Professor of Geology, Botany and Agriculture, Space Pilot Class 3 and…. B-But… I- I’m Frightened!”. (Eagle Vol 1, No. 40, 1951) – but her character is all the more well rounded and realistic for doing so. Over the course of their adventures she maintains her leadership position in the team, even eventually winning over even the most misogynist of Space Fleet: Sir Hubert, he on the telephone in the panels above, cries himself when he hears she has been left for dead after an emergency evacuation where she couldn’t possibly have survived… “Hank is absolutely A.1 at Lloyds… and so is the girl. She stood by me on a sinking rocket in the Venus flamebelt, with the silicon mass creeping up on us, and never batted an eyelid! I’d ride a V. 2. Rocket to save that girl, if it was a straight problem of rescuing her, but it isnt…” (he sobs). (Eagle Vol 2, No. 47, 1952). Peabody is, quite frankly, amazing.
Peabody comes out of nowhere. The first female to appear in my corpus of academics in illustrated children’s fiction – a full hundred years after the first man – she is central to the Dan Dare comic strip. The writers of the comic knew how rare she was, and it was a conscious decision to include a woman who was equal to the men in this fictionalised future. Dan Dare’s creator and artist, Frank Hampson, said of Peabody when interviewed in 1974:
I didn’t want to produce a strip without a female. In a way I struck a blow for Women’s Lib! She was shown as a very clever, attractive young lady. It also paved the way for a few arguments between her and [the men] in the first story – a nice human touch… she was just a very normal, efficient, competent girl. (Quoted in Vince 1994, p. 27)
Women in science fiction are rare. In 1975, Leading science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin described the genre’s sexist and hierarchical structure:
From a social point of view most SF has been incredibly regressive and unimaginative. All those Galactic Empires, taken straight from the British Empire of 1880. All those planets – with 80 trillion miles between them – conceived of as warring nation-states, or as colonies to be exploited, or to be nudged by the benevolent Imperium of Earth towards self-development – the White Man’s Burden all over again. The Rotary Club of Alpha Centauri, that’s the size of it… It is a perfect baboon patriarchy, with the Alpha Male on top, being respectfully groomed, from time to time, by his inferiors (LeGuin 1975, p. 209-10).
Peabody was physically modelled on one of the comic artists who drew her – Greta Tomlinson, now Greta Edwards. Intellectually, though, she is based on a complex, full drawn, and impossible (at the time of writing) backstory.
Born in Gloucestershire, she attended school in Southampton, graduating from Bedford College, University of London, before undertaking her doctorate at Magdalen College, Oxford University. By the time of the first Dan Dare strip, she is the youngest and first female lecturer at Oxford. Now, Bedford College offered higher education for women between 1849 and 1985, becoming part of the University of London and then eventually merging with Royal Holloway, so it is perfectly feasible that Peabody could have studied chemistry there in both the real 1950s and fictional 1980s of the comic strip’s creation and imagination. However, Magdelen College, Oxford did not admit female students until 1979, so at the time of writing (1950) Peabody could not have gone there: the writers challenge barriers and expectations. I checked with the Magdalen College archivist, who told me the first woman at Magdalen to undertake a doctorate there
was probably Kate Lessells, an ornithologist who was also our first female Fellow: she became Magdalen’s first female Fellow by Examination (a postgraduate role equivalent to JRF) in 1979. She got her D.Phil in 1982, having written and defended her thesis on factors affecting family size in Canada geese.
I find this fascinating – a comic written in the 1950s reasonably accurately predicts a timeframe in the future (late 1970s and early 1980s) where women’s engagement and equality of opportunity should be a possibility. (It should be noted, of course, that although Magdalen was the last all-male place at Oxford, many women had rich and successful research careers there since they could become full members of the University in 1920. At both faculty and college levels, there were many notable female researchers at Oxford throughout the 20th Century).
The battles that Peabody regularly faces – backwards in high heels, people – echo many of the issues we experience as women in academia, or women in science, today. I also find it somewhat disconcerting that a comic character from the 1950s is, on my worst of days, the most accurate portrayal of my working life as a woman in the academy, working with technology, in 2016.
Peabody is a trailblazer. The circulation of the Eagle, at its highest in the 1950s, was around one million copies sold per week (giving an expected readership of double or triple that). The potential influence of her character in showing a brave, skilled, women of intellectual heft, should not be underestimated. However, she is an outlier: I have not found another illustrated female academic in children’s literature who is so fully drawn, so considered, so concretely placed to challenge, again and again, the perception of women’s place in science and technology, representing a hopeful but hard won equality in the academy.
I have to confess I’m a little bit in love with Professor Peabody: Ada Lovelace Day is the perfect opportunity to introduce others to her, too.
Le Guin, (1975). American SF and the Other. Science Fiction Studies, Vol 2. Part 3, November 1975.
Vince, A. (1994). The Frank Hampson Interview. Cambridge, UK. Astral Publications in association with the Eagle Society. Quoted in Jones, D., and Watkins, T. (2000), A necessary fantasy?: the heroic figure in children’s popular culture, Routledge.
P. S. Let’s save the arguments over whether comics are children’s literature for another day…