A fellow I know recently told me about a conversation he had with a lady who claimed that Wonder Woman was a Feminist Icon. He asked how Wonder Woman could be considered such when she runs around all the time in that skimpy outfit. After all, real Feminists get all huffy about objectifying women, right?
The lady didn't have an answer to that, so my friend counted that as a “win”. I'm not sure if I agree with him, though. A lot depends on your definition of what being a “feminist” means. But it occurred to me that I could probably get a column out of it.
To me the question of whether or not Wonder Woman is a feminist seems obvious. Of course she is. The fact that Feminist Icons consider her a Feminist Icon seems to me more relevant than what Wonder Woman wears. Second Wave Feminist Gloria Steinem grew up reading Wonder Woman comics and regarded her as powerful, woman-affirming figure; and when she co-founded, Ms. Magazine, in 1972, she featured the Amazing Amazon prominently on one of the first covers.
But more importantly, Wonder Woman is a feminist because that's what her creator intended.
William Moulton Marston was, to put it mildly, an interesting guy. He studied psychology at Harvard in the 1910s and became interested in the suffragette movement. He contributed to the DISC theory of behavior assessment and developed and heavily promoted an early version of the lie detector. He believed that in many ways women are emotionally and intellectually superior to men and that in time, they would come to be the dominant sex in society.
The two important women in his life were also feminists. His wife, Sadie Elizabeth Holloway, was a strong-minded “New Woman” who had become a lawyer after graduating from one of the oldest woman’s colleges in the country. His mistress, Olive Byrne, a one-time student of his who officially became a kind of live-in housekeeper/nanny but was unofficially more of a co-wife, was the niece of the woman's health advocate Margaret Sanger and her mother, Sanger's sister, helped open the first birth control clinic in America.
Byrne was also a writer and would do pieces appearing in the magazine Family Circle in which she'd interview the famous Dr. William Moulton Marston on a variety of subjects. One of them was on comic books, which already were beginning to worry parents and professional thinking persons. Superman was a fascist; Bat-Man was a violent vigilante. Are they corrupting our children?
Dr. Marston said no: for the most part, comics were simple wish-fulfillment and perfectly healthy. Surely a character like Superman, whose motivations are to protect the innocent and to defeat evil, couldn't possibly be a bad influence on children. The bad comics out there, Marston insisted were rare.
M. C. Gaines, the publisher of All-American Publications, (the company that became known as DC Comics), was impressed by the article and decided it would be a good idea to have a consulting psychologist on staff. He hired Marston to sit on an Editorial Advisory Board which would evaluate and endorse the comics his company put out. Marston soon persuaded him that what his company really needed was a female hero.
“A male hero, at best, lacks the qualities of maternal love and tenderness which are as essential to a normal child as the breath of life. Suppose your child's ideal become a superMAN who uses his extraordinary power to help the weak. The most important ingredient in the human happiness recipe still is missing – LOVE. It's smart to be strong. It;s big to be generous. But it;s sissified, according to exclusively masculine rules, to be tender, loving, affectionate, and alluring. 'Aw, that's girl's stuff!' snorts our young comics reader. 'Who wants to be a GIRL?' And that's the point; not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, power. Not wanting to be girls they don't want to be tender, submissive, peaceloving as good women are. Women's strong qualities have become despised because of their weak ones. The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.”
Gaines liked the idea of publishing a comic that would appeal to girls as well as boys, so he gave Marston the task of creating this new feminine hero. But Marston's idea wasn't just to create a role-model for girls; he also wanted to introduce boys to a heroic archetype of womanhood, who would embody what he saw as women's positive attributes. Initially Marston called his heroine “Superba the Wonder Woman”, but this was quickly abbreviated to “Wonder Woman.”
It went without saying that Wonder Woman would be beautiful – “As lovely as Aphrodite “ is how Marston described her. Although an ambassador for Peace, she would be willing to fight for Democracy. Captain America had recently debuted over at Timely Comics, and they wanted Wonder Woman to have a similar flag-based costume. And, recognizing that cheesecake always sells, Gaines wanted her to wear as little as the postal regulations prohibiting delivery of obscene material would permit. Marston suggested their artist, Henry Peter, take inspiration from Antonio Vargas, who was drawing luscious pin-ups of women draped in brief, revealing outfits for Esquire magazine. Marston also gave Wonder Woman her iconic bracelets, inspired by similar bracelets always worn by his companion Olive Byrne.
The bracelets bring up another weird quirk about Wonder Woman's creator. He had a thing about bondage. Hardly an issue went by without Wonder Woman being tied up, chained up or bound in one way or another. Which you could simply put down to the convention of the Damsel in Distress from Adventure Fiction, if not for Wonder Woman's earnest musings on the Amazonian doctrines of Willing Submission. And spanking games. The modern reader can be weirded out by the not-terribly-subtle kinkiness of these Golden Age stories... and to be fair, some of the readers back then were too.
Marston answered these critics by saying that these kinds of fantasies were perfectly healthy and that he was a consulting psychologist so he knew what he was doing. It's a matter of conjecture whether his interest in bondage grew out of his theories about submissive and dominant behavior or if his theories were justification for his unconventional personal tastes.
Yet on another level, the theme of bondage fits in with Wonder Woman's feminist themes as well. The image of the woman shackled in the chains of Society goes back to the very beginning of the movement, when the Suffragettes were a sister group to the Abolitionists and shared many of the same goals and much of the same rhetoric. Every time Wonder Woman found herself chained up and had to break free, she was in a sense re-enacting one of the central narratives of feminist thought: that women are enslaved by male-dominated culture and society and need to liberate themselves.
In most of those Golden Age adventures, Wonder Woman is helping women who are trapped, or being exploited, or just plain brow-beaten. She aids them, not just with her mighty Amazonian strength, but also with her heroic example and her inspirational words.
“Oh you stupid girls! When you let your men bind you – you let yourself be bound by war, hate, greed, and lust for power! Think! And free yourselves! CONTROL those who would oppress others! YOU CAN DO IT!”
In another story, she helps a community of women overthrow the male tyrants who have conquered them. “You've shown us, Princess, that clever women can conquer the STRONGEST men!” they tell her. “And don't you ever forget that, girls!” she replies.
She doesn't just give inspirational lessons to the women she meets. A big part of her mission is teaching men to treat women with respect. Her awkward dance with clueless love-interest Steve Trevor reflects this theme. She really feels attracted towards him, but she generally keeps him at arm's length, like an adorable puppy who needs to be taught where not to poop.
“You'll never get an Amazon THAT way –“ she says stiff-arming him as he impulsively tries to embrace her; “try your cave man style on MAN'S World girls!”
“You were superb, Angel!” Steve says in another story. “If only you'd marry me ---!”
“If I married you, Steve, I'd have to pretend I'm WEAKER than you to make you happy--” she replies, “and that, NO woman should do!”
I wonder, though, if the most feminist character in WONDER WOMAN might be her sidekick, Etta Candy. She was a student at Holliday College, a girl's school inspired by Mount Holyoke, Elizabeth Marston's alma mater and by the women's college at Tufts University, where Martson taught; and belonged to the Beeta Lambda sorority. In contrast to the leggy Amazonian Etta was short and pudgy with a fondness for sweets. She had once been sickly and malnourished, but Wonder Woman had encouraged her to embrace the things that brought her joy. Which happened to be candy. Lots of it. Etta was no marshmallow; she had an irrepressible confidence and was fully capable of beating the ever-living snot out of any jerk, crook or Nazi who gave her grief. She once stormed a Nazi concentration camp single-handed, armed only with a box of chocolates, and on multiple occasions rescued Wonder Woman when she had been captured by bad guys.
She liked to say that she owed all her success to candy, and had no patience for body-shaming. “You ought to cut down on the candy,” Wonder Woman once told her. “It will ruin your constitution.”
“Nuts, dearie! My constitution has room for lots of amendments.”
“But Etta, if you get too fat you can't catch a man --”
“Who wants to? When you've got a man, there's nothing you can do with him --- but candy you can EAT!”
Etta did not object to men on principle – she had one or two boyfriends over the years and even almost got married once (to a Hungarian prince who turned out to be a Nazi spy; so she decked him) – but she clearly knew her priorities.
Later writers made Etta shy and self-conscious about her weight, and maybe even a little envious of Wonder Woman. Marston's character had none of that. I like the fact that the Golden Age Etta had zero awe of Wonder Woman but that they regarded each other as equals and as friends. If Diana is a near-goddess and an unattainable ideal, Etta was more down-to-earth, yet still a strong, positive character.
Marston wrote WONDER WOMAN until his death in 1947. About this time, the popularity of super-hero comic books was waning, and one by one, the costumed crime-fighter comics of the Golden Age were being replaced by other genres, like westerns, science fiction, romance and funny animals. At National Comics, the only heroes to survive were their flagship characters, Superman and Batman, and also Wonder Woman. Under the agreement with Marston, the company was required to publish at least four Wonder Woman comics per year or the rights to the character would revert back to him. Even though her sales were not quite as high as those of her male colleagues, the company recognized that Wonder Woman was a valuable property and so they kept her in circulation.
Wonder Woman fell into the hands of writers who didn't get, or were uninterested in, Marston's vision of female empowerment. Robert Kanigher, perhaps best known for his war comics like SGT. ROCK, took over the book and wrote it for the next two decades. His Wonder Woman stories were sometimes imaginative, sometimes erratic, sometimes just weird, (he created the WW arch-foe Egg-Fu, a gigantic talking... uh... egg), but the Higher Purpose was missing.
Around 1968, artist Mike Sekowsky and writer Denny O'Neil undertook to revamp Wonder Woman for the Modern Era. They took her out of her skimpy star-spangled pinup girl outfit and into a mod Emma Peel jumpsuit and had her renounce her Amazon powers and train with an aged Kung-Fu master named I Ching. The idea was to make her more relevant for the Woman's Lib Era, but the Second Wave feminists who were embracing Wonder Woman at that time didn't see it that way. They argued that stripping Wonder Woman of her iconic costume and props diminished her identity; and stripping her of her super-powers diminished her as a hero. Eventually, Denny apologized for the re-vamp and Wonder Woman reverted to her old powers and costume.
DC tried re-booting her again, more successfully, in the late 1980s, following their CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS series. George Perez and Greg Potter combined elements of the Golden Age Wonder Woman with some of Robert Kanigher's additions and bits of Greek legend. This version emphasized her role as an ambassador from Themyscria, the Island of the Amazons, to the Man's World, with a mission to teach mankind to Give Peace a Chance. As part of this mission, she helps create a foundation devoted to helping young women develop their potential.
Since then other writers have offered their takes on the character, emphasizing different qualities. It's become more common in recent years to emphasize the Amazon's warrior culture, sometimes at the expense of her mission of Peace. For a time, recently, there was an attempt to have Superman and Wonder Woman date each other; a move which to me seemed more diminishing than the pants suit and the fortune-cookie oriental master.
And people are still ambivalent about the whole “feminist” label. A couple years ago, in an interview with writer Meredith Finch and her artist husband David, who were at the time taking over the creative duties on the comic, David Finch said: “We want her to be a strong – I don't want to say feminist, but a strong character. Beautiful,but strong”. Even back at the very beginning, when Wonder Woman was first becoming popular, her editor, acting on a reader survey, decreed that she be added to the JUSTICE SOCIETY OF AMERICA comic. The writer, Gardener Fox, had to comply, but he made her the group's recording secretary only and never had her go out on missions with the rest of the team.
Still, no matter who is writing her and no matter what kind of an outfits she's wearing, Wonder Woman will always be a gal making it on her own in a Man's World, acting and succeeding in a predominantly male profession.
Not a bad aspiration for a feminist.