In “Wonder Woman” by Gloria Steinem, Steinem states that Wonder Woman played a key role in redefining femininity. As comics had become popular, Steinem took notice of the lack of heroines on the printed pages. Adolescent girls struggled to find the representation that they wanted until William Marston created Wonder Woman in 1941. “The only option for a girl reader is to identify with the male character- pretty difficult, even in the androgynous years of childhood,” Steinem writes (Steinem 179). Before then, female characters in comics were submissive to the hero; they consistently portrayed the damsel in distress, unknowing in their own strengths (Steinem 179). Wonder Woman burst into the scene with a different take on femininity; rather than using brutality and pure strength like most heroes at the time, she relied on her inner strengths as often as she relied on the tools surrounding her. In most comics of the time, Steinem took note of how the heroes who used the “power and crunch” technique would beat their enemies into submission, their violent tactics seemingly like a character trait. Wonder Woman, however, was the opposite. She uses her love and compassion for humanity to the greatest of its ability. Rather than spitting on her rivals, she raises them to her level, converting them, making sure that they will never doubt a woman again (Steinem 180).
In addition to Wonder Woman showing the author new strengths, the character also conveyed a strong message regarding feminism. Steinem recalls an instance in the Wonder Woman comics when the heroine goes back in time to the American frontier to save a pioneer named Prudence. Prudence realizes her worth not just as a woman, but as an individual, which as the author continues on, is a prominent trait in the comics (Steinem 180). The villain will either be a woman, usually a victim of internalized misogyny, who is taken on a journey with Wonder Woman to rediscover the tenacity of their femininity, or it will be a man who suppresses women until he realizes that they are not inferior, but rather equals (Steinem 181).
Continuing on with Steinem’s take on Wonder Woman, she also writes on the importance of the character’s origins. Not only is Wonder Woman a strong female character, but the world she is immersed in is abundant with them. Wonder Woman’s home island is Paradise Island, where she is raised along with the Amazons, a band of female warriors stemming from Greek mythology. Her mother, Queen Hippolyte, is also another groundbreaking female character, according to Steinem. Mother figures are often not portrayed to support their daughters; instead, they are written to hold contempt for their daughters, bitter that they failed in birthing a son. However, Hippolyte is just as strong as Wonder Woman, if not stronger, which is something the author believes is needed for girls (Steinem 181).
Since Wonder Woman’s origins stem from Greek mythology, Steinem also delineates the possible history of gynocracies, tribes in Brazil that worshipped women and compared them to deities. Men were praying to goddesses and performing rituals mimicking child birth, as childbirth was what placed women on a pedestal. These tribes were nonviolent and skillful in agriculture while their male counterparts in nomadic tribes specialized in hunting. As men figured out their role in reproduction, their respect for women flaked away and turned into a need for ownership, thus creating the concept of marriage. As the patriarchy continued in history, gynocracies fell behind, now regarded as a myth because of the lack of written record (Steinem 185).
However, there were cons to Wonder Woman’s feminist messages. Steinem recalled times where the villain would doubt the power of women, but the implied message was one of misandry- the ideology that women are superior to men. This dogma was even believed by the author, who explained that Wonder Woman was superior because along with physical prowess, she had love on her side, a rare occurrence in male superheroes. In the comics, there would be a call for a new hierarchy, one that places women above men, similar to the gynocracies mentioned before. And though in Wonder Woman’s new world would men be treated as equals, women would continue to be superior (Steinem 182).
To Steinem’s dismay, the Wonder Woman she grew up with changed drastically in the 1950s and 1960s after the death of William Marston, the original author. As the posthumous comics were published, Wonder Woman lost her identity. She no longer took on the role of Wonder Woman, but remained as Diana Prince, a side character in her own series. Though there were still adventures to be had, she suddenly lost her powers. Anybody could defeat her; Wonder Woman had now become dependent on men. This transition is a murky memory in Steinem’s mind as she was experiencing adolescence and held Wonder Woman’s original messages to heart. As Wonder Woman lost her feminine identity, Steinem was discovering her own (Steinem 184).
The Dark Age in Wonder Woman comics had come to an end, however. By 1973, there would be a resurgence of Wonder Woman, a return that Steinem is hopeful for. When discussing her anticipation, Steinem wishes for Wonder Woman to regain the strength she once had, to reinstate herself as the feminist icon she grew up with (Steinem 184).