This essay is the second in a special 5-part weekly series for Women’s History Month that Women You Should Know is proudly running in partnership with Anna Reser and Leila A. McNeill, the editors of Lady Science, a multifaceted collaborative writing project focused on women in science, technology, and medicine. Their purpose is to highlight women’s lives and contributions to scientific fields, to critique representations of women in history and popular culture, and to provide an accessible and inclusive platform for writing about women on the web.
By Leila A. McNeill – During the Golden Age of the Wonder Woman comics, the writers introduced a now little-known backup feature titled “Wonder Women of History” in 1941. In each issue containing this feature, the fictional mainstay character Wonder Woman stepped aside to give voice to the real life stories of exceptional and often silenced women of history. Being an American based comic, this feature included mostly American women, but the ethnic diversity among them, though disproportionately white, is actually quite surprising for the time period, especially considering that only in the last five years or so have mainstream comic writers made a conscious effort to integrate people of color into their narratives. There was also a lot of diversity in occupation among the historical women, including politicians, writers, human rights activists, suffragists, nurses, doctors, and scientists. Even with this wide range of occupations, women in the history of science, technology, and medicine make up the largest group in the entire feature. I find the representation of these women in the context of the Wonder Woman comics to be an important and extremely radical way to tell the stories of historical women in science.
On a superficial level, the Wonder Woman series just seems feminist. After all, Wonder Woman was the first female superhero to have a comic all her own, and to this day, Wonder Woman has had the longest publishing run of any comic with a woman at its hero helm. According to her origin story, Wonder Woman was an Amazonian warrior princess named Diana of Themyscira. She possessed one of the most interesting and unique weapons in the superhero arsenal, the Lasso of Truth, originally called the “Magic Lasso” or “Golden Lasso,” which compelled complete obedience, not just truth, from whomever it ensnared. If Wonder Woman seems feminist, that’s because the origin story of the comic and franchise comes directly from feminist ideology and the suffrage movement.
By simply including these female scientists in the feminist pages of Wonder Woman, the writers implied to the little girls reading these stories that even daring to dream of a career in science was a feminist pursuit.
In the past three years or so, we have witnessed another rise of Wonder Woman in modern popular culture as geek girl culture and cultural critics reclaim her feminist origins. Talk of a DC Comics Justice League film franchise and a Batman and Superman combo film had everyone asking “will they or won’t they” bring Wonder Woman back to film as well. Tim Hanley’s Wonder Woman Unbound: The Curious History of the World’s Most Famous Heroine published in April 2014 explores the evolution of Wonder Woman over time and her relationship with concurrent gender politics. The New Yorker’s Jill Lepore published in October The Secret History of Wonder Woman in which she details the feminist origins of the comic series and its creator, psychologist William Moulton Marston (1893-1947), known also for his contributions to developing the polygraph.
Marston harbored unconventional ideas about sexuality, domination and submission, and women and also supported unorthodox feminist views that promoted the establishment of a matriarchy. Marston claimed that feminine qualities, like love, had been mistaken for weakness, which led girls to believe that their femininity was inherently flawed. His solution to this problem was an “obvious remedy…to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.” Marston also believed that the comic book medium possessed untapped cultural clout. Combining his beliefs in the unfulfilled cultural influence of both women and the comic book medium, he created Wonder Woman. In an interview, Marston plainly stated his purpose for the character: “Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.”
Marston’s unconventional views played out in various ways in the narratives of the comic. One of those narratives belonged to the feature “Wonder Women of History.” For many of the women included in the feature, this was the first time they had been represented in popular culture, indeed represented in any context at all. Considering Marston’s original intentions for the comic, the feature fit naturally into his vision, as it was intended to represent intelligent, exceptional, and independent female role models that young girls could confidently and proudly emulate. That these women were first brought to the public’s attention in the 1940s within an explicitly and unabashedly feminist context was, quite frankly, groundbreaking.
“Wonder Women of History” ran for 54 issues and covered a total of fifty historical women. Sixteen of them came from STEM fields, more than any other field. The first four “Wonder Women of History” issues each featured a nurse, Florence Nightingale, Clara Barton, Edith Cavell, and Lillian D. Wald, respectively. Later, the feature also included astronomers Maria Mitchell, Caroline Herschel, Annie Jump Cannon, pilots Amelia Earhart and Harriet Quimby, chemists Marie Curie and Ellen Swallow Richards, public health reformers Dorothea Lynde Dix and Marie Elizabeth Zakrzewska, and several more doctors.
Like the rest of the comic, this feature does not shy away from its feminist aims. In almost every feature, the female scientist encounters overt sexism and hostility from male colleagues.
However, unlike their fictional counterpart who used her Magic Lasso and super strength to take down men, these women used their intelligence, determination, and strength of will to achieve their goals. By the end of the story, those who had denied them legitimacy, demeaned them, or told them that they couldn’t succeed because of their gender, were forced in one way or another to listen to them and recognize their accomplishments.
Another interesting aspect to these stories is the writer’s portrayal of the women as young girls with a budding passion for science.
Florence Nightingale as a teen finds inspiration to change the world in a statue of an Amazon. A young but ambitious Annie Jump Cannon analyzes star charts, and a precocious, determined Maria Mitchell tackles higher mathematics. By showing these exemplary women as children, the young girls for whom the comic was intended can easily imagine themselves in the shoes of such accomplished scientists.
As the Golden Age of comics came to a close, so did this one-of-a-kind feature. The last “Wonder Women of History” appeared in January 1953 in issue #57, and like the first installment, it featured a woman in medicine, Marie Elizabeth Zakrzewska doctor and civil rights activist who founded the New England Hospital for Women and Children. The irony will be lost on no one when I tell you that “Wonder Women of History” was replaced by a feature about marriage and wedding rituals. Our beloved hero and Marston’s “new type of woman” suffered a similar fate. During the Silver Age of comics, Wonder Woman drastically moved away from its feminist roots. In the 60s, Wonder Woman the character willingly gave up her powers and returned her armor and weapons to her mother in order to stay in “Man’s World” with Captain Steve Trevor. Without her powers and only her good looks to save her, alter-ego Diana Prince opened a boutique.
To find outspoken women’s activists like Sojourner Truth or Susan B. Anthony in the explicitly feminist context of Wonder Woman is not surprising. However, the STEM women represented are different because while a couple of these female scientists openly identified as women’s rights activists, most of them did not. By simply including these female scientists in the feminist pages of Wonder Woman, the writers implied to the little girls reading these stories that even daring to dream of a career in science was a feminist pursuit.
*Images from “The Wonder Women of History” are from comicvine.com.
Leila A. McNeill is an independent researcher with a focus on women and gender in the history of science. Her previous research has been based on popular medical texts for women, midwifery, and women’s ways of knowing in Imperial Germany. Currently, she is working on literature and science in the 19th century and the gendered separation between public and elite science. She holds an MA in Literary Studies from the University of Texas at Dallas and an MA in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine from the University of Oklahoma. Additionally, Leila also develops and implements curriculum for racial and gender based violence prevention for youth.
Original illustrations (lead and close) by Anna Reser