The sequel Wonder Woman 1984 is hitting theaters and HBO Max on December 25, so the Center for Women’s History is taking a look back at how the superhero character—who first appeared in a comic book in 1941—has been imagined, utilized, and contested as a feminist icon over the decades.
Wonder Woman was the creation of a bombastic and eccentric psychologist, William Moulton Marston. In her Secret History of Wonder Woman, historian Jill Lepore wields unprecedented access to family records to uncover previously overlooked facets of Marston’s life that drove him to imagine the superhero as the strongest and bravest woman in the world. Born just before the turn of the 20th century, he was trained as a psychologist and best known in the decades before Wonder Woman as the inventor of the lie detector. His career was varied, marked by spectacular failures as well as moments in the spotlight, but largely driven by an interest in understanding human emotions—particularly the motivations driving people to deceive one another and the interplay of dominance and submission. His professional life and personal relationships were profoundly shaped by entanglements with the increasingly independent New Women of his generation taking advantage of educational opportunities for the first time. He was an ardent supporter of women’s suffrage in the 1910s, and his work reflected his own particular brand of feminism: He believed that women deserved full equality and objected to bounds on their citizenship, while still maintaining patriarchal authority within his own home. And yet, his home life was anything but traditional: For more than two decades, he lived in seeming harmony with three women, “with love making for all,” and had four children with two of them.
Listen to historian Jill Lepore discuss her award-winning book during a 2016 New-York Historical public program!
Marston infused Wonder Woman with his own views about women and gender, stating “Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.” He believed that women were superior to men because of their greater capacity for empathy and submission. To Lepore, the comic’s themes, literary tropes, and even visual iconography of Wonder Woman’s early exploits were inspired by feminist literature and political art of the 1910s. For example, feminist utopian fiction of that period looked to Greek mythology for examples of powerful matriarchies to emulate in the 20th century. Wonder Woman’s origin story echoes Max Eastman’s Child of the Amazons and Inez Haynes Gillmore’s Angel Island, and early issues of the comic provide visual parallels to the work of cartoonist Lou Rogers, as well as photographs of real suffragists in action. Many of the storylines mimic women’s labor organizing of the era as well.
But perhaps most influential to Marston’s Wonder Woman was the work of birth control advocate Margaret Sanger. One of Marston’s lifelong partners, Olive Byrne, was Sanger’s niece; her mother, Ethel Byrne, had famously gone on hunger strike in prison in 1917 for the sisters’ work founding a birth control clinic in Brooklyn. Marston’s personal and intellectual beliefs were woven into Wonder Woman both implicitly and explicitly: Other writers for the comic were gifted copies of Sanger’s Woman and the New Race so that they could understand the comic’s guiding philosophy, but the superhero’s signature bracelets were also an homage to Olive herself. She had begun wearing wide-banded bracelets on both her wrists after secretly marrying Marston and joining his household, including his first wife and other lover, in 1928.
Marston’s superhero was wildly popular, but also subject to critique. Some contemporaries criticized her skimpy costume, or as Lepore terms it, a “suffragist as pin-up” model, drawing influence as well from the Varga Girls gracing popular magazines in the early 1940s. Others criticized the violence, and even sadism, driving the comic’s narrative. They worried about what messages this was imparting for children; Congress even held hearings about whether comic books contributed to juvenile delinquency in the 1950s. Yet still others objected to how Marston depicted female power and strength. After he died in 1947, new writers relegated the superhero to the background with her powers largely relinquished, just as many women who began to work during World War II were forced to return home. Her storylines turned towards the domestic, with Wonder Woman pining for Steve Trevor—who she had originally saved—to propose marriage.
Gloria Steinem is often credited with Wonder Woman’s resurrection in the 1970s and infusing her image with feminism for a new generation. Steinem grew up reading the comic and, when she co-founded Ms. magazine in 1972, decided to feature Wonder Woman on its inaugural cover under the banner “Wonder Woman for President.” This visually linked the new magazine to feminists’ broader goals of expanding women’s political representation, for example with the founding the year prior of the National Women’s Political Caucus. It also provided a “more representative” image, according to Ms. writer and editor Joanne Edgar; the staff worried that a portrait of a real-life woman would have placed too much pressure on any single individual to symbolize the entire feminist liberation movement. As comic book historian Tim Hanley claims, “Ms. updated Wonder Woman, shifting the focus away from female superiority to sisterhood and equality, essentially making her a mascot of the women’s movement.”
The “ladies,” as Lepore calls Marston’s partners, gave their seal of approval to the magazine; Lepore writes that Betty Marston, his legal wife, flew to New York when she was nearly 80 years old in order to see the production of the first issue of Ms. for herself and speak to its writers and editors. She enthusiastically approved of the feminist project if not the actual drawing on the cover. In a 2017 Vanity Fair interview, Steinem recalls this visit, saying Marston was a “no-nonsense little woman who always wore a hat, was very precise, sure of herself, and encouraging to us.” Wonder Woman has since graced the cover of Ms. five times. Steinem claimed Wonder Woman as a feminist icon not only in the pages of Ms., but also urged DC Comics to bring back the superhero’s original powers in a renewed series, or as Steinem put it, “to stop making her into a powerless 1950s carhop.” After a relentless campaign, the company agreed in exasperation, saying “Okay, she’s got her magic lasso back to make people tell the truth, she’s got her bracelets back to repel bullets, she’s got Paradise Island back as her origin story…. Now will you leave me alone?”
But Wonder Woman is not only a feminist icon—she is also a product of a largely patriarchal pop culture. Although Steinem and Ms. embraced Wonder Woman, the comic book publishing industry was reluctant to incorporate their vision of the superhero’s feminism; even as DC Comics rebooted the series in the 1970s with concessions to Steinem, they did so with a chauvinist writer at its helm, as Lepore explains. The historian also notes the irony that the 1975 CBS television series starred Lynda Carter, a former Miss World pageant winner; feminists had notoriously protested the Miss America pageant held in Atlantic City in 1968, gaining the moniker “bra burners” even though no fires were actually set to the “women garbage” protestors discarded into a trash can as part of their demonstration against the objectification of women’s bodies. By featuring a pageant winner as their icon, the series leaned into the same beauty standards these feminists had rejected. And not surprisingly, not all feminists have embraced Wonder Woman. The radical group Redstockings considered it, alongside Ms., to represent the selling out of feminist principles.
This critique has echoes still. While the new film series has been directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins, and features scenes of life on the women-only island of Themyscira that ace the Bechdel test, some feminists continue to see the consumerism and commercialization of Wonder Woman in its latest iteration as objectionable. Fans of the film laud the actress Gal Gadot’s performance of Wonder Woman as a bad-ass warrior, especially as the actress was pregnant while filming; others see this as another form of corporate feminism in which individual women may crack a glass ceiling while keeping obstacles firmly in place for other women. Many continue to see her skimpy costume as evidence of the male gaze dominating Hollywood. Others object to the violence depicted in the new film series as well as the military background of Gadot herself (the actress served in the Israeli army). Yet as Lepore notes, “superheroes, who are supposed to be better than everyone else, are excellent at clobbering people; they’re lousy at fighting for equality.” Exceptional characters are just that: extraordinary and unique, impossible to replicate. While Wonder Woman, as both Marston and Jenkins have intended, speaks to certain feminist hopes and ideals, she is also imperfect. Relying on her character alone is a chimera.
Will you be tuning in to see how Wonder Woman fares against Cheetah this Christmas? As the title makes clear, the new movie is set during the Reagan era, a period popularly characterized as a backlash to Steinem’s vision of feminism, provoking the question of what sorts of challenges Wonder Woman might face. Will her exploits resonate with our current cultural landscape, shaped by the pandemic, political polarization, and protest? We eagerly anticipate watching how Wonder Woman transcends it.
Written by Anna Danziger Halperin, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Women’s History and Public History, Center for Women’s History
Top image: Assorted Wonder Woman books and toys enjoyed by Anna’s children.