Three things happened while Cathy Guisewite was a student at U-M that led to her long, successful career as a cartoonist.
One was a lettering class she took—her only art class—which later came in quite handy when she created a daily comic strip. Another was a creative writing class. Her professor “was the first person, other than my mother, who really thought I could write,” Guisewite recalls.
The third thing? “I worked at Drake’s,” she says of the legendary sandwich shop on North University, where she served—and ate—milkshakes and fried pecan rolls. “The weight that I gained at Drake’s,” she laughs, “definitely helped to launch my career as a cartoonist.”
Guisewite used those experiences, and her years in advertising after she graduated with a B.A. in English in 1972, to inform one of the best-loved comic strips of the past several decades, “Cathy.” She understood the challenges faced by women who worked outside of the home, searched for the right partner, had complex relationships with their mothers, and yo-yo dieted in a world filled with temptation—and cartoon Cathy experienced it all.
After drawing the daily strip “Cathy” for 34 years, Guisewite announced its end last year, and the final panel appeared in newspapers in October (the New York Times pointed out that the ending would occur after Cathy’s most-dreaded time of the year: swimsuit season).
“I heard from so many people who said ‘thank you, Cathy has always been my friend,’” she says of the letters she received when she announced the end of “Cathy.”
In the final strip, the fictional Cathy announces to her parents that she and husband Irving are having a baby girl. It was a time of transition for the real-life Cathy as well: She had decided to end the strip to spend more time with her parents and with her daughter.
“I committed myself to being a mom this year, and to have that be my job,” she says. Noting that it wasn’t until her daughter’s final year of high school that she ended the strip, the once-deadline-driven cartoonist says, “it’s like everything else in my life; I waited until the last possible moment.”
When the strip began in 1976, the women’s movement was in full swing, and “Cathy” blazed a new path in the world of the newspaper comic strip. For one thing, as The Comics Journal noted, “Cathy” was the “only syndicated daily comic strip about a single career woman being produced by a single career woman. It shattered a glass ceiling.”
The character of “Cathy” faced sexual harassment and unequal pay at a time when real women were struggling with the same issues. She also dealt with everyday humiliations based on her “four major guilt groups” of food, love, mom, and work. Cathy fretted about trying on bathing suits and jeans, navigated the world of dating, and argued with her mother about … well, just about everything.
“I hope the legacy of my strip is that it helped women to keep a sense of humor when a lot was changing around us,” Guisewite says, “and that my strip gave women permission to be vulnerable and know that they weren’t alone.”
In the months since she has stopped creating the strip, Guisewite is adjusting to a lower-stress existence. “It’s been very strange to not have the same panic when I wake up every morning that I have a deadline to meet,” she says. And she’s also thinking of a future that includes “Cathy.” She plans to do theme-specific books based on the strips, and she would like to do a retrospective book that features Cathy as a representative of women during the last three decades.