Comic book publishers have always had their collective finger on the pulse of the larger culture, looking to incorporate whatever fad, trend or movement they perceived their readers wanted to see reflected in their stories. Invariably, these attempts to mirror the culture came off as unintentionally hilarious, endearingly clumsy affairs that did more to caricature the trend than capture it. The Women’s Liberation Movement of the late 60’s and early 70’s was no exception to this rule. Most likely spurred on by the idealistic Young Turks trickling into the business, the Old Guard (no doubt trying their best to make sense of it all) gradually began featuring female characters with aggressive, take-charge attitudes. The traditional roles of Girl Friday, Damsel in Distress and Passive Background Figure were replaced with brassy firebrands that had plenty to prove.
It’s only fitting that one of the first shots across the bow would appear on a Lois Lane cover (#80, 1968). As the “First Lady” of superhero comics, Lois go-go booting Superman out of her life (while ripping “girlfriend” from the logo) packed a powerful, symbolic punch.
Following Lois’ example, the rest of the DC “fighting females” come together for an All-Girl Issue in DC Special #3 (1969). Note the puzzled, exasperated expressions of DC’s male stars (possibly mirroring the attitudes of the creators themselves).
DC’s Big Men on Campus go from perplexed to pummeled on the cover of Justice League #75 (1969). The fishnet-clad legs obviously belong to the Black Canary, who “requests” JLA membership following her immigration from Earth-2 the previous issue.
Valkyrie and her “Lady Liberators” strike a blow for sisterhood on the cover of Avengers #83 (1970), dominating the thoroughly unconscious “male chauvinist pigs” of the Avengers.
“The Vengeful Valkyrie” is back in Hulk #142 (1971), and she’s still got plenty to prove to…you guessed it…“the male chauvinist pigs in the world!”
The Asgardian warrior-maiden is as brash as ever on the cover of Defenders #4 (1973), going so far as to classify alpha-powerhouses like Sub-Mariner, Dr. Strange, and the Hulk as “puny males”. You may want to reconsider that statement, Val.
By this point, it’s obvious that sincere (yet tone-deaf) comic book creators weren’t so much promoting equal rights for women as they were selling the message that “feminists are scary”. Rather than coming across as role models, the feminism-tinged characters were more often than not brawling, bitter females bent on humiliating males.
In the “All-New! All-Now!” Green Lantern #82 (1971), writer Denny O’Neil draws subtle parallels between feminist activists and savage mythic females (such as Harpies, Amazons and Medusa). Supposedly, an older and wiser O’Neil was so embarrassed by this story, he requested that it not be reprinted in an early collection of his GL run (though it was later restored in subsequent collections).
Thundra, a chain-wielding warrior from a matriarchal society of Femizons (sound familiar?), takes it to the Thing in Fantastic Four #133 (1973). As it turned out, Thundra had a complicated relationship with Ben “puny man” Grimm, sometimes knocking him around, other times intensely attracted to him.
On the cover of Marvel Team-Up #8 (published the very same month as FF #133), The Cat threatens to “mop the floor” with Spider-Man if he dares to interfere in her battle with the lovely Man-Killer.
DC keeps pace with Power Girl, debuting on the cover of All-Star Comics #58 (1976). As a brash Earth-2 answer to Earth-1’s demure Supergirl, Power Girl wasn’t about to take any guff from the male JSAers...especially Wildcat!
The Scorpion is declared “not man enough” to defeat “Marvel’s great new superhero sensation” on the cover of Ms. Marvel #2 (1977). The tiny blurb in the upper left hand corner claims that “this female fights back”! And how!
For those really zealous feminists, the cover of Superman #261 (1973) must have been a dream come true, as Star Sapphire orders Superman, the ultimate symbol of masculine power, to kiss her pink go-go boot…while ultra-miniskirt Lois watches in horror (or perhaps admiration)!
By this point, you’re probably wondering where the ultimate symbol of female power…namely Wonder Woman…figured into all of this. Of course, Wonder Woman has been an inspiring figure (both symbolically and literally) for over six decades, but her actual contributions to the Women’s Lib movement are somewhat of a mixed bag.
As Wonder Woman’s creator, psychologist William Moulton Marston often used the character and her supporting cast as a vehicle to advance his assorted theories and fetishes. As a result, Wonder Woman spent most of the 1940’s tying up villains, getting tied up or restrained herself…or playfully wrestling, tying up or even spanking her gal pals. Not exactly shining moments for female dignity. As if in reaction to the eccentric Marston era, Wonder Woman spent the 1950’s and early 60’s fighting the usual superhero menaces, with very little panel time devoted to advancing (or even acknowledging) the feminist cause.
However, all of that changed in 1968, as Wonder Woman #178 breathlessly announced, “The New Wonder Woman is here!”
When the Amazons left for another dimension to renew their “magical powers”, Wonder Woman decided to surrender her powers and stick around on Man’s World. Next, she did what any feminist icon would do and opened a fashion boutique. Following the sudden death of long-time beau Steve Trevor, the newly single and very “mod” Diana left the superhero biz for the world of international espionage, mirroring the adventures (and look) of Emma Peel, a character from the then-popular TV series The Avengers (above).
Later, in response to the Kung-Fu fad, Diana acquired an Asian mentor named “I-Ching”, further blurring the focus and mission of the Wonder Woman character. In fact, feminist leader Gloria Steinem kicked off the first issue of Ms. Magazine (which featured Wonder Woman on the cover) with an essay bemoaning the loss of Wonder Woman’s classic look, claiming the changes had “stripped the character of her power”.
DC soon reverted the character to her more traditional look, but not before bringing this bizarre era to a close in the classic Wonder Woman #203 (1972), the infamous “Women’s Lib Issue”.
In hindsight, there might have been better cover imagery to communicate the “Women’s Liberation” concept than a bound-and-gagged woman thrusting her chest forward…but hold on. It gets worse. At one point in the story, Diana claims to have no knowledge of the Women’s Movement, culminating in quite possibly the most scandalous panel of the character’s long publishing history:
Get that, folks? Diana doesn’t “even like women”! In her “Special Women’s Lib Issue”, no less! As for not being a “joiner”, she seems to have forgotten her membership in the U.S. military (as Diana Price) and the Justice League of America.
Thankfully, the woman-disliking, non-joining Diana was shown the door and replaced by the traditionally-garbed Wonder Woman. A Wonder Woman that, I might add, immediately returned to a steady diet of bondage covers. Ahhh….progress!
I may be wrong, but I don’t think that’s quite what Gloria Steinem had in mind for Wonder Woman’s return to power.
Or was it?
“Looking back now at these Wonder Woman stories from the forties, I am amazed by the strength of their feminist message…Wonder Woman symbolizes many of the values of the women’s culture that feminists are now trying to introduce into the mainstream.”
–Gloria Steinem, from an introduction to Wonder Woman, a Ms. Book published in 1972 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston.