Updated: Jun 15
As a general sensation of fear and a desire for prosperity dominated the time period after the devastation of the Great Depression and World War Two, men and women of the 1950s adhered to strict gender roles with men going out to work and support the family and women acting as homemakers and mothers. However, despite the appearance of content with these gender norms, discontent started to bubble behind the veil of conformity. These roots of dissatisfaction with the gender status quo at the time arose through frustrated college-educated mothers who drove their daughters to seek change. Thus, as these daughters grew up in 1960s and 70s America, so did Second Wave Feminism, which sought to achieve equality for women in all spheres of society as well as tear down the concept of strict conformity to feminine roles. Simultaneously, as cartoonist Charles Schulz returned from World War Two, his comic-creating ambitions grew. In 1947, Schulz created the precursor to his world-renowned Peanuts called Li’I Folks, which was by all accounts a failure. Despite this, by 1950, Schulz sold his comics to United Features Syndicate which renamed them Peanuts. In the 1960s, Peanuts exploded in popularity being printed in over 400 newspapers internationally, winning Schulz a Reuben Award, and gracing the eyes of millions of Americans. Given this massive platform, Schulz, a feminist himself, saw an opportunity to subtly support the cause through Peanuts. Schulz used the characters of Lucy Van Pelt, the strong-minded, independent, businesswoman sister of Charlie Brown, and Peppermint Patty, the star athlete introduced in 1966 to smash gender norms and support the Second Wave feminist movement throughout the 1960s and 70s.
Lucy was the first female character introduced to Peanuts and the sister of the main character Charlie Brown. Although still conforming to gender norms in some areas, Lucy broke them in others being an outspoken feminist who ran her own psychiatric practice. However, by combining stereotypical female traits with ones that were generally viewed as male, such as speaking boldly and being independent, Schulz conveyed an even more potent message as Lucy’s unconventional traits felt normalized. Schulz depicted Lucy as a young woman who was not afraid to speak her mind and be bold in a strip published on July 18, 1964. Here, Lucy subverts gender norms by writing to the American Medical Association (AMA) in protest of her diagnosis of “Washerwoman's Elbow” which could be viewed as a sexist term. In her letter, not only does Lucy protest both the term of the ailment and the ailment itself, but she also announces her ambition to be the future, Miss America.
Lucy can also be seen as a businesswoman, running her own psychiatric practice, which debuted on March 27th, 1959. In a time when women in the workplace were discouraged and women owning their own businesses was almost unheard of, Lucy’s psychiatric endeavors empowered young girls and provided them a perspective that was seldom seen during an era of strict conformity.
Also, with Schulz himself supporting feminist causes, Lucy too can be seen explicitly supporting the feminist cause in a multitude of different comic strips. The earliest instance can be seen on the December 15th, 1962 publication of the comic strip. Here, Lucy converses with Schroeder, a young boy, asserting that it was a scientific fact that girls are smarter than boys and the “women scientists” proved it.
Eight years later, in a series of two comics in 1970, Lucy, who also plays baseball, intentionally does not catch a hit while playing in the outfield. She attributes this play to her being a feminist. In another strip ten days later, Charlie Brown, Lucy’s brother, asks Lucy about Second Wave Feminism as she proclaims, “feminists are going to change the world”. However, when asked if she still does not want to play center field, Lucy responds saying “That’s degrading”.
In the October 19, 1985 edition of Peanuts, Lucy’s little brother Linus is watching a TV program called “Great Ideas of Western Men”. Lucy then demands Linus to get out of the beanbag he is sitting in and fetch her some ice cream. Upon sitting down, Lucy retorts, “Great Ideas of Western Woman.” Not only is Lucy acknowledging the contributions of women to society, but by Schulz choosing to use woman singular, he tells the joke that Lucy’s idea to watch TV and have Linus get her ice cream was a great idea. On top of explicitly stating her feminist opinion, Lucy also acts assertively, a trait that is usually associated with men.
Throughout the three examples where Lucy is overtly feminist, Schulz is able to use humor and jokes to pacify the sometimes incendiary feminist rhetoric he depicts during a time of strict conformity. Finally, by utilizing the extremely innocuous and seemingly harmless medium of comics, Schulz is able to relay a strong message that may not be well received if delivered in other forms such as a speech or newspaper article.
Despite Lucy already subverting gender norms by being an avid baseball player, Peppermint Patty, a new female character introduced in 1966 was the epitome of female athletics. In the year 1966, female athletes were extremely rare in the mainstream and many were discriminated against in professional sports. In context, 1966 was the year when the first woman ran the Boston Marathon after disguising her gender identity. Patty was by far the most athletically skilled character out of the entire Peanuts cast and was the only female character to not sport a dress. Schulz makes Patty’s somewhat crude and strong character evident in her debut comic where Patty tells her friend Roy that she would clobber him if he did not put a good word in about her baseball skills. Patty’s impact as a female athlete in Peanuts had an almost immediate effect. Because of the seamless inclusion of Patty into the Peanuts universe and her immediate acceptance into Charlie Brown’s baseball team, Peanuts had normalized women in sports without pointing glaring feminist arrows toward the matter. Also, many young girls read the Peanuts comics while growing up in the 1960s and 1970s in the heat of second-wave feminism, and seeing an athletic female role model in a comic strip many read daily gave them a sense of empowerment and self-confidence about their own athleticism. This effect can be best noted in Justine Siegal, the first female MLB coach who attributes Peppermint Patty as a character who through Schulz’s innocently funny comics inspired Siegal to play baseball.
Apart from influencing individual people, Schulz used Peppermint Patty’s character to push for legislative changes and gender policy reform too. In 1972, Richard Nixon signed Title IX of the education amendments. This title was intended to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex in educational programs or activities including sports programs. Despite its initial successes, Congress passed numerous bills to limit its scope, and many programs such as the NCAA, which launched a legal battle against the title in 1976, fought against the premise of Title IX. Three years after the NCAA’s challenge, The Department of Health, Education, and Welfare published their formal interpretation of Title IX in December of 1979. In the months leading up to the publication of this policy report, Schulz ran a ten-day-long storyline featuring Peppermint Patty and her fight for equal rights in sports. Using the classic format of a four-panel comic, Schulz was able to present perspectives and talking points in support of Title IX, while maintaining the simple humor that Peanuts readers had enjoyed for decades. The first comic of the ten-strip series features Patty telling Charlie Brown that the girls received basketballs that were not even half as good as the ball Charlie Brown got to play with. This opener to the series brought millions upon millions of eyes onto the issue of gender inequality in sports.
The next day, Schulz used a humorous comic where Charlie Brown asks Linus whether or not he believed women should play the same sports as boys. Linus replies that he always thinks there is a risk for injury, which was a common anti-Title IX talking point. However, subverting expectations, Patty barrels through the last panel, hitting Linus to the side. Because of Patty, Schulz was able to use Peanuts, an integral part of American culture, to bring the issue of gender inequality in sports to people of all ages.
Overall, Charles Schulz’s brilliant character building, along with his own feminist leanings allowed him to use Lucy Van Pelt, a strong and outspoken young businesswoman, and Peppermint Patty, the start athlete of the Peanuts cast to reflect the efforts of the Second Wave Feminist Movement to achieve equality for women and to dismantle traditional gender norms and roles. Schulz’s use of humorous comics as a medium to convey his messages made his efforts more impactful as comics were generally viewed as innocent fun and not as activism. Thus, people became more receptive to Schulz’s feminist messages without realizing it. Finally, through Peppermint Patty, Schulz was able to empower young female athletes and push for legislation that would support equality for female athletes.
Friedman, Megan. “A Brief History of Peanuts.” Time. Time Inc., October 1, 2010. http://content.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,2022745,00.html.
Kay, Stanley. “How Peppermint Patty Became an Advocate for Female Athletes.” Sports Illustrated. Sports Illustrated, August 19, 2016. https://www.si.com/more-sports/2016/08/19/peppermint-patty-peanuts-charles-schulz-female-athletes.
Schulz, Charles. Peanuts. United Feature Syndicate, 1959. https://www.gocomics.com/peanuts/1959/03/27
Schulz, Charles. Peanuts. United Feature Syndicate, 1964.
Schulz, Charles. Peanuts. United Feature Syndicate, 1979.
Schulz, Charles. Peanuts. United Feature Syndicate, 1979.
Schulz, Charles. Peanuts. United Feature Syndicate, 1966.
Schulz, Charles. Peanuts. United Feature Syndicate, 1962.
Schulz, Charles. Peanuts. United Feature Syndicate, 1970.
Schulz, Charles. Peanuts. United Feature Syndicate, 1985.
“Title IX Archives.” Women's Sports Foundation. Accessed May 27, 2022. https://www.womenssportsfoundation.org/advocacy_category/title-ix/#:~:text=Title%20IX%20gives%20women%20athletes,schools%20to%20colleges%20and%20universities.