Few popular culture icons have been identified with feminism as strongly as the comics' Wonder Woman. From the beginning, the character's originator, the psychologist William Moulton Marston (pen name, Charles Moulton), envisioned her to be a reflector of women's strong points, not just to attract girl readers, but also to expose boys to the ideals of feminism. The multitalented Marston's career itself was permeated with an interest in gender and female subjectivity. While at Harvard earning a Ph.D., he researched femininity, and later, in his criminology career (he had also earned a law degree and invented the lie detector), he worked with inmates in women's prisons and reform institutions. As a consultant for M. C. Gaines beginning in 1937, he advised the comics publisher that gender was the key for comics reform and that the medium needed a superheroine. Marston combined his knowledge of psychology and mythology (he had written scholarly and popular books and articles on these topics, as well as mysteries and screenplays) to create Princess Diana, who became Wonder Woman once she left the land of the Amazons.
Later, Wonder Woman became the semiofficial emblem of feminism when she graced the cover of the initial issue of Ms. magazine in July 1972, in the process becoming the magazine's mascot. Ms. publisher Gloria Steinem was a great admirer of Wonder Woman. In the introduction to a 1972 collection of Wonder Woman stories, Steinem recalled as a child her "toe-wriggling pleasure" while reading about this "strong, beautiful, courageous" fighter for social justice.
The feature originally appeared in the December 1941 All Star Comics (no. 8). The following month, Wonder Woman was the lead character of Sensation Comics no. 1, and by summer 1942 she had her own comic book, one of only a few characters popular enough to merit and sustain an individual title.
Veteran strip cartoonist Harry G. Peter drew Wonder Woman, and ideas came from scriptwriters such as tennis champion and associate editor Alice Marble, Joye Hummel Murchison, and Dorothy Woolfolk. Marston's two-pronged family (he lived in the same house with two women simultaneously and bore two children with each) also was helpful. His legal wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, was said to have urged Marston to create a superheroine; his "unofficial" wife, Olive Richard, publicized his efforts and may have been the inspiration for Wonder Woman. Marston's son Pete sent story ideas from college, receiving payment of $25 for each one used.
Wonder Woman's popularity soared during World War II as she fought social injustice and foiled the diabolical plots of Nazi spies, foreign infiltrators, and other villains, usually with a minimum of violence. Her main weapon was her magic lasso, which she used to capture men and compel them to obey her. At its peak, the Wonder Woman comic book sold 2.5 million copies monthly. In 1944 a newspaper comic strip was started, but it lasted only a year.
Wonder Woman came in for her share of criticism during the character's formative years. She was the disdain of boy readers perhaps because of the paucity of males; some entire sequences were completely devoid of men. Accusations were hurled at Marston and Gaines for what some believed was an overemphasis on bondage (characters were regularly tied up) and male bashing, and for including lesbian overtones. The top anti-comics crusader, Fredric Wertham, referring to the claimed bondage, called Woman Wonder "one of the most harmful characters," the lesbian counterpart to Batman. Josette Frank of the Child Study Association of America, employed to monitor the comics, chastised Gaines that the feature was "open to considerable criticism … partly on the basis of the woman's costume (or lack of it), and partly on the sadistic bits showing women chained, tortured, etc." Marston retaliated, saying binding and chaining were "harmless, painless" ways of subjecting the heroine to menace and that "women enjoy submission, being bound." Other comics consultants joined the fray, but the controversy died, and Gaines continued to support Marston until his death in 1947.
Wonder Woman's editor after Marston was Robert Kanigher, who served as the writer of the comic as well. During the twenty years that he filled both positions, substantial changes occurred. By 1960, Kanigher had deviated from Marston's original story, adding the characters Wonder Tot and Wonder Girl. At first, these characters portrayed Wonder Woman as a baby and young girl, respectively, but by 1963 all three appeared together in stories, thus defying logic. The storyline became so convoluted and confusing that in 1965 Kanigher took Wonder Woman back to the 1940s and started all over again.
The character deteriorated further when a new team in 1968 transformed her into a mortal woman and stripped her of her powers and uniform. These changes eventually led to the demise of the book with no. 329 in February 1986, and the character a month later in an issue of Crisis on Infinite Earths. Like most superheroes, however, she was quickly brought back from the dead. Finally, nearly fifty years after her creation, Wonder Woman was for a brief time under the domain of women cartoonists, namely, Jill Thompson, Mindy Newell, and Trina Robbins. The character has had other makeovers since the early 1980s, including a stage in the early 1990s when she was a hypersexual, barely clothed pinup.
Unlike Batman and Superman, Wonder Woman did not break into broadcasting and film early. Her first exposure outside comics was in 1966 on a 45-rpm record; her first screen appearances were in a 1972 episode of The Brady Kids animated television show and a Justice League of America's Super Friends, produced by Hanna-Barbera in 1973 for ABC. Various Saturday morning animated shows featuring Wonder Woman continued through 1986. In 1974 ABC and Warner Brothers released a made-for-TV movie, Wonder Woman, starring Cathy Lee Crosby, which did not draw much attention. But the popularity of a second ABC movie, The New Original Wonder Woman, broadcast the following year and starring Lynda Carter, led to a one-hour, weekly series that debuted in October 1976. The show moved from ABC to CBS in 1977, at the same time that the setting was changed from World War II to the 1970s.
Daniels, Les. 2000. Wonder Woman: The Life and Times of the Amazon Princess; The Complete History. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.
Horn, Maurice. 2001. Women in the Comics. Rev. edition. Philadelphia: Chelsea House.
Robbins, Trina. 1996. The Great Women Superheroes. Northampton, MA: Kitchen Sink Press.
Robinson, Lillian S. 2004. Wonder Women: Feminisms and Superheroes. New York: Routledge.
John A. Lent
"Wonder Woman." Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender: Culture Society History. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 19, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/wonder-woman
"Wonder Woman." Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender: Culture Society History. . Retrieved August 19, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/wonder-woman
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