Wonder Woman’s Feminist Roots

by Meghan Erkkinen December 1, 2014

Since she first appeared on the pages of All-Star Comics in 1941, Wonder Woman has been a paragon of a strong, heroic woman. She stands for truth, justice, and peace. She is widely described as a feminist icon—and with good reason. Wonder Woman was designed by psychologist William Moulton Marston to be the type of woman who could "rule the world."

Marston was not only a noted psychologist and professor but also a prominent women’s rights activist.

This paragraph comes directly from the recent The New Yorker article: "'Wonder Woman' was conceived by Dr. Marston to set up a standard among children and young people of strong, free, courageous womanhood; to combat the idea that women are inferior to men; and to inspire girls to self-confidence and achievement in athletics, occupations, and professions monopolized by men."

Marston was of the belief that women were the best hope for future civilization. In fact, in 1937, he predicted that women would eventually rule the world. He himself admitted that Wonder Woman was designed to be a propaganda for this "new type of woman" who would lead this new world.

Wonder Woman’s back-story is deeply rooted in the suffragist movement of the late 19th and early 20th century. Wonder Woman’s real name is Princess Diana of Themyscira and she’s one of the Amazon warriors. According to Greek mythology, this all-female band of fighters formed their own matriarchal society. The suffragist movement borrowed from Amazon imagery for use in pro-feminist novels, poetry, and artwork.

When Marston was approached by Superman publisher M.C. Gaines to work as a consultant, he suggested creating a female superhero. Marston borrowed heavily from the suffragist literature while developing Wonder Woman’s origin story.

Wonder Woman first appeared in December 1941, on the eve of World War II, in All-Star Comics No. 8, when she flew to the United States from her mythological homeland to fight for truth, justice--and women’s rights. The next spring, publishers asked readers whether Wonder Woman should be allowed to join the superheroes’ Justice Society, which at the time was composed only of male heroes. Almost 89 percent of the nearly 2,000 first responders voted for her inclusion.

During her first few years, Wonder Woman encouraged women to join in the war effort as Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAACs) or Women’s Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Services (WAVES). A regular four-page feature called "The Wonder Women of History" included biographies of important women and their accomplishments. Did you know that Wonder Woman ran for president in 1943? A year later, she became the third superhero after Superman and Batman to have her own daily syndicated comic strip.

Marston died of cancer in 1947, just as American women were returning to their domestic roles as housewives (after spending the war working in factories to support the war effort) while men returned from war and went back to work. Wonder Woman followed suit, working more feminine jobs. The "Wonder Women of History" feature was replaced with a feature on wedding trends.

Although Marston’s dream of a civilization led by women has yet to come to fruition, Wonder Woman’s image is still in many ways synonymous with female strength and wisdom. Soon, she’ll be coming to the big screen. In 2016, Israeli actress Gal Gadot will play the Amazon warrior in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. This new Wonder Woman may be a new way for a new generation to engage with Marston’s vision of confident, courageous women.

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