Today, the last day of Women’s History Month, I’d like to take a closer look at the most influential and recognizable superheroine in comics, Wonder Woman.
She may not be the the first comic book superheroine or even the first heroine to star in her own comic, but you can’t deny the impact that Wonder Woman has had on the history of comics and on our cultural as a whole.
As a character with strong feminist roots, Wonder Woman has certainly seen her share of ups and downs throughout her publication.
Created by Dr. William Moulton Marston and his wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston, Wonder Woman first appeared in an 8-page story in All Star Comics #8 (December 1941) and would later go on to star in her own title in the summer of 1942.
Dr. Marston was a Harvard-trained psychologist and the inventor of the polygraph (a legacy that’s clearly reflected in Wonder Woman’s Lasso of Truth). He was also a staunch feminist. However, instead of advocating for an equal society, Marton championed a matriarchy in which women would use their femininity to control and dominate men (who he regarded as inherently more violent and greedy).
Obviously, this belief is problematic because placing women on a pedestal is still a form of objectification.
As a member of the DC Editorial Advisory Board, Marston came to realize a severe lack of female characters and role models in comics. To remedy this, he created the character of Wonder Woman, loosely based on his wife Elizabeth Marston and Olive Byrne, a live-in student who was involved in a polyamorous relationship with the Marstons.
Marston’s belief of woman’s superiority and his obsession with bondage and the master/slave relationship would both become central theme’s of early Wonder Woman stories. These stories also contain a surprising amount of stereotypes about women.
Despite these issues, Wonder Woman’s empowering message and uniqueness helped the heroine to quickly find a market. That’s why it’s not surprising that the decision was made to give Wonder Woman a place on the JSA. Sadly, she was only bestowed the “honor” of becoming their secretary.
This insult is only compounded by the fact that she was physically more powerful than the other JSA members. Not to mention that her book was actually selling better than those of the male JSAers.
But, with Marston’s death in 1947, Wonder Woman would soon lost sight of her feminist roots completely.
With women leaving the factories and no Nazis to fight, the publisher decided that it was the perfect time to reboot Wonder Woman as the star of a romance comic. Gone was the strong, feminist Diana of the early ’40s. Instead, fans were left with a Wonder Woman who liked to be princess-carried across shallow streams.
Of course, this was not the only radical transformation the character would undergo. The late 1960 saw the rise of the “Mod Girl Wonder Woman” when Dinan gave up her powers, opened a mod boutique, and gained a male mentor and slew of new love interests.
Feminist icon Gloria Steinem was not too happy about about this, but she’s hardly alone in her disdain.
“the new Wonder Woman was a caricature, a weak figure with no personality or wit. Denied her erotic and feminist history, she became a virginal, domesticated figure whose goal of fighting injustice was abandoned for marriage and shopping… Diana Prince is stripped of her superpowers to become a mortal woman. One glance at the cover’s embellished print and fashionably mod Diana… says everything about the story that awaits readers inside: a veritable cacophony of hatboxes, shoes, and fashionable outfits. The most important thing about this Wonder Woman, it seemed, was the way she looked.”
Like so many other female comic characters, Wonder Woman’s publication history is fraught with well-meaning mistakes, carelessness, and down right sexism. However, Wonder Woman perseveres.
Her cultural importance is unrivaled by other superheroines and she is just as important today as she was when she was created more than seven decades ago.