“Frankly Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who, I believe, should rule the world.” …so declared her creator Dr. William Moulton Marston.
That’s right, this skimpily clad woman was intended as a symbol of feminine power, a role model for girls.
The TV Lynda Carter version certainly made an impression on me as a young girl; I loved that show! I admired her strength, her mystique, and well yes, even her costume. And I never stopped thinking of her as fierce.
I had no idea about her incredible back story until I read this month’s issue of Smithsonian magazine.
THE BIRTH OF WONDER WOMAN
The comic book genre was created in 1933 by former elementary school principal, Maxwell Charles Gaines. Comics provided escape from those troubled times, and kids loved them. In the late Thirties, as World War II set in overseas, the books were criticized for glorifying violence.
The Chicago Daily News wrote passionately about them in 1940, calling for a ban on comics, “unless we want a coming generation even more ferocious than the present one.”
Gaines needed to take action, so he hired a psychologist as a consultant—William Marston. Marston was a lawyer, scientist and professor, who held three degrees from Harvard including a PhD in psychology. You may know him as the inventor of the lie detector.
Unbeknownst to Gaines, Marston was quite unconventional, living what he called “an experimental life.” In a nutshell, he was living with two women, one of whom was connected to the early twentieth century feminists Margaret Sanger and Ethyl Byrne—Byrne being the woman’s mother. (I’ll let you read more about that over at Smithsonian!)
Had Gaines known about Marston’s lifestyle he would never have hired him—he wanted to avoid controversy, not court it! Thankfully for Gaines, Marston managed to keep his personal life under wraps.
The problem with comics was their emphasis on extreme masculinity. Marston suggested countering this with a female superhero—who ever heard of such a thing?
Gaines agreed to take the risk, but charged Marston with writing the strip.
WONDER WOMAN THE FEMINIST
According to Jill Lepore, Marston described Wonder Woman as having “Amazonian origins in ancient Greece, where men had kept women in chains until they broke free and escaped.”
In Marston’s words, “The NEW WOMEN thus freed and strengthened by supporting themselves (on Paradise Island) developed enormous physical and mental power.” The comic would represent “a great movement now under way—the growth in the power of women.”
Wonder Woman debuted in All-Star Comics at the end of 1941, and launched Gaines’ new line, Sensation Comics, in early 1942. She left her home on Paradise Island to join the fight in World War II with “America, the last citadel of democracy, and of equal rights for women!”
Unfortunately she chose to do so in a bustier, underpants and knee-high boots. The patriotic design couldn’t mask the overt sexuality of the character. In short order (March 1942), the National Organization for Decent Literature deemed Sensation Comics “Disapproved for Youth.” Why? “Wonder Woman is not sufficiently dressed.”
WHAT’S REALLY GOING ON HERE?
Further criticism revolved around the amount of time our heroine spend bound in chains and the like (a valid concern, but come on, she always broke free!), so Gaines turned to another expert. This time it was psychiatrist Lauretta Bender, director of the children’s ward at Bellevue Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in the heart of NYC, and an expert on aggression.
Based on her interactions with children who had been traumatized—they tended to find comfort in superheroes—she believe comic books were “the folklore of this age,” serving the same purpose as fairy tales and fables.
Bender wrote that Wonder Woman comics placed women “on an equal footing with men and indulge in the same type of activities,” displaying “a strikingly advanced concept of femininity and masculinity.”
In my opinion, this was too much for the establishment to stomach. By the mid-1950s her powers started to wane, and by the Sixties she was barely “super” at all. Criminal if you ask me… Even so, Wonder Woman still held enough clout in 1972 for Gloria Steinem to choose her to grace the cover of the first newsstand issue of Ms. magazine.
KEEPING IT REAL
Of course girls (and women) don’t need a superhero for a role model; strong women are all around us! And all through the course of history women have made their mark.
In fact, current archeological findings point to a real source for the Amazon myth: the women of ancient Sauromatae, or Sarmatia, of the southern Ural steppes in Russia. They rode alongside men in battle, and at a height of 5’6” would have been very tall for their time.
There are rumors that Wonder Woman will be in the Man of Steel sequel due out in 2016, and that she may have her own movie some time in 2017. Superhero movies aren’t really my thing, but I will definitely go see my girl Wonder Woman! How can you not?!
So…did my love of Wonder Woman as a girl influence the woman I became, or was I simply drawn to her because she appealed to my personality? It probably doesn’t matter.
A lot has changed since Wonder Woman became part of our cultural experience. Although I don’t “rule the world” I think Dr. Marston would be pleased to know that I rule my world. And that is what matters.
Do you have a favorite superhero? What do you think about Wonder Woman? I highly recommend you click through to read the Smithsonian articles cited below—so interesting! And don’t forget the MHF Facebook page!
All photos via Smithsonian Magazine except where noted.
Foreman, Amanda. The Amazon Women: Is There Any Truth Behind the Myth? Smithsonian Magazine. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/amazon-women-there-any-truth-behind-myth-180950188/?no-ist (Accessed October 1, 2014)
Lepore, Jill. The Surprising Origin Story of Wonder Woman. Smithsonian Magazine. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/origin-story-wonder-woman-180952710/?page=1 (Accessed September 30, 2014)
O’Connell, Sean. Wonder Woman’s Movie: What We Know So Far. Cinema Blend. http://www.cinemablend.com/new/Wonder-Woman-Movie-What-We-Know-So-Far-42732.html (Accessed September 30, 2014)
Amazon. Encyclopaedia Britannica. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/18672/Amazon (Accessed October 1, 2014)
Wonder Woman 1975-1979. IMDb. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0074074/ (Accessed September 30, 2014)