TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT Summer 1989

LOOKING FOR WONDER WOMAN

I ALWAYS SKIPPED THE secret-identity parts of Wonder Woman comics, those segments in which she wore a blue military uniform and rimless spectacles instead of the star-spangled costume designed by the Amazon Queen, her mother. Although Wonder Woman’s boyfriend, a blond army intelligence pilot, also appeared in the action segments, to my mind he represented a menace in the scenes in which retiring “Diana Prince” was merely a WAC clerk with a terrible crush on him. With good reason, moreover, since he was responsible for Wonder Woman’s double identity in the first place. For after Steve Trevor crash-landed, a sort of preppy ex machina, on Paradise Island, he was nursed by the Amazon princess, who fell in love with him and insisted on following him back to the U.S. Wonder Woman’s embrace of Steve Trevor also meant an embrace of his cause and his country, so in both Amazon and WAC avatars, she enlisted on the Allied side in World War II. The goddesses Aphrodite and Athena endorsed this decision of the heart in an appearance before Wonder Woman’s mother, Hippolyte, the Queen of the Amazons, calling America "the last citadel of democracy and of equal rights for women.”1 But Wonder Woman’s WAC persona made me uneasy nonetheless, and, at whatever sacrifice of narrative coherence, I tended to ignore the frames that featured it.

Male comic book heroes were a different story. I relished the dramatic irony of nerdy Clark Kent’s interactions with people who were unaware that they were really dealing with Superman. Likewise copyboy Billy Batson, who I—but not his own coworkers—knew was Captain Marvel. As for Freddie Freeman, the crippled newsboy who had only to recite a ritual formula to turn into Captain Marvel Junior, his superhero status was only enhanced by his apparent disability. It was just Wonder Woman whose secret identity threatened to overwhelm and swallow up the heroic reality. I think I was afraid that one day I’d innocently open that month’s comic and find Diana Prince waking up to announce that “Wonder Woman” was only a dream after all. (Sure, that would have been a trite and derivative device, but hell, this is a genre that mixes convention and innovation in daring ways. Who’s to guarantee that they’d stop short of the “and-then-I-woke-up” device?)

I don’t think this was merely paranoia. The dominant cultural message of my growing-up years was precisely that awakening to womanhood meant abandoning the heroic identity of the war years for domesticity, motherhood, and consumerism. Indeed, ww II, Wonder Woman’s war, was well over by the time I could read comics, with the wicked enemy no longer the identifiable Axis but a vague international conspiracy, and the place for women in this new, this chillier war firmly on the home front.

Actually, I did learn to read in the last months of the war, if hardly at superhero level. One day I sounded out the words BUY WAR BONDS as a skywriting plane—Steve Trevor at the controls?—formed the letters. “After the war,” a neighbor child informed me confidently, “they’ll write DRINK PEPSI COLA up there.” I was positive such desecration would never come to pass. But by the time I was devouring monthly installments of Wonder Woman, substances far worse than Pepsi had been splashed across the firmament. If the ’50s could make heaven itself into a billboard, Wonder Woman might well be the next icon to go.2

I didn’t know she was an icon, of course. But she was certainly the apotheosis of the female hero I also sought in fiction closer to home. It was what drew me, bookish and klutzy as I was, to identify with all the tomboy characters in children’s literature—because they were the only ones who openly challenged the traditional female role. What enchanted me about Wonder Woman was her physical power. That it was enrolled in the good fight was taken sufficiently for granted that I could concentrate on the power itself. Part of the charm was that, unlike Superman (who, if you come to think of it, was an alien from another planet and whose strength was thus measured on a different index), the wonder of Wonder Woman merged the natural and the supernatural, without reference to the extraterrestrial. She wasn’t strong the way someone from Krypton would be (well wouldn’t they?), but she was skilled. She had developed her abilities to a fine, a martial art. And if those abilities were still inadequate to the challenge, there were always her magic bracelets, and also her wondrous invisible airplane, and her headband radio-telepathy. Nor were these instruments a passive if divine gift: Wonder Woman’s skills included all the wonderful things she’d learned to do with them.

I had no idea there were other stories about Amazons, enough to constitute a complex and varied myth. Rather, I learned the word “Amazon” from my comic books. For all I knew, it was Wonder Woman who was the prototype, the only Amazon, not a camped-up descendant of a classical figure. The prowess, the sheer physicality, of the true Amazon is acquired, legend tells us, at the expense of her female nature. The very name “Amazon” derives from the Greek words meaning “without a breast,” for removing the right one solved the problem of how a normally constructed woman could operate the heavy bow used in ancient warfare. But voluntary sacrifice of a breast to military exigency clearly meant sacrificing one of the keys to women’s physical distinctiveness, as well as the literally maternal and nurturing role it entailed. Amazons were also commonly supposed to be man-haters, rejecting what the myths uncritically presented as the paired experiences of heterosexuality and subordination. But in theory, at least, there could be warrior women with fully active heterosexual lives, and thus bearing and nurturing children as well. Submission, however, once they were armed, was another matter, which is presumably why Frederic Wertham, the Freudian critic of the comic genre, called Wonder Woman a lesbian and hence a “frightening image” for boys, a “morbid ideal” for girls.3

So that’s one kind of wonder, military power expressed through a woman’s body, once that body relinquishes conventional expectation. Even though Amazons were not presented as absolutely invincible—indeed, some of the myths involve their conquest by the forces of patriarchal civilization—still, the wonder of their skill increased exponentially with their numbers. (For Amazons are normally represented as acting in community, tribally. Even in America, Wonder Woman has a band of “the girls” to assist her valorous endeavors.) Thus the wonder is not omnipotence, but exceptional power for a woman.

Yet at the other extreme of the spectrum of female wonder (which I take to mean the ability to do something truly amazing) is the awe-inspiring capacity to bear and nurse children, precisely those capacities that Amazons were presumed to deny. Worship of nature’s power to generate and sustain life, and identification of this creativity with the female principle, has been the hallmark of many cultures, both prehistoric and historic. Although this spiritual awe says nothing about the status of actual women in civilizations or periods when the Great Mother prevailed, it is nonetheless instructive to consider what the past two millennia in our culture have made of the image of the mother goddess.4

The proverbial naif from another planet (Krypton, say?) touring the museums and cathedrals of Europe might well conclude that Western civilization centered on a high regard for maternity. Mother and baby (the same ones, but how’s a poor alien to know?) are represented everywhere, occasionally in an image of triumphant pregnancy or serene nursing, sometimes in wonderstruck worship just after birth, most often simply posed together in such a way that the fact of their being is a statement in itself. If the space-tourist had a good enough guidebook, all the Annunciations, Pietàs, Ascensions, and Assumptions would also take their place in the story of this particular wonder mother.

But the wonder of the Virgin Mary, as her name indicates, differs from that of the usual mother goddess in one crucial respect. Far from celebrating the wonder of the most fundamental creation all other kinds follow and emulate, the motherhood of Mary is the most special of special cases. She is the impossible union of the virgin and the mother. Honored above all womankind and cited as the exemplar of womanhood, she can be emulated in part by all women but in toto by none. The wonder of the Great Mother is connected to nature through sexuality—which is the medium of maternity—and to fertility, which it simultaneously symbolizes and assures. The wonder of the Great Mother of Christian worship and iconography, however, is her categorical distance from the realm of nature in general, and sex in particular.

For Catholics, Mary is also set apart from the rest of humanity by her removal from the stain of sin. Because of her sacred mission as virgin mother, she was the sole member of our species created, from conception, free of original sin. (The same sin that we daughters of Eve are condemned to expiate through the pain suffered in childbirth.) If you believe in original sin and also believe it to be the universal human condition, then Mary’s immaculate state is as wondrous as her perpetual virginity. No wonder the nontheologically minded get the Virgin Birth and the Immaculate Conception mixed up!

So there is the Amazon version of female wonder, inspiring a sense of boundaries crossed or extended through military feats, offensive or defensive. And there is the maternal version, inspiring wonder at the capacity to bring forth new life. And, for our culture, the icon of the Amazon is Wonder Woman, with the awe built right into her nom de guerre. But she’s the archetype with a difference, since she’s fallen for a mortal male and the Amazon may at any moment be eclipsed into the conventional wife and eventual mommy. Meanwhile, the icon of maternal wonder in Western civilization remains Mary; but once again, with a difference. She is the mother who has not engaged in sex.

Is it ever possible, in the world of wonder, to put the pieces together, to have the experience and evoke the awe that is owing to both martial/political and reproductive accomplishment? Cultural history provides us with only a few clues. The women warriors of Renaissance epic poetry—Bradamante in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, Clorinda in Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered, and Britomart in Spenser’s Faerie Queene—are like Amazons to the extent that they are warrior women, indeed, knights errant fighting for a cause to which they are committed, and clearly relishing the casual fights as they arise. In the epics themselves, they are warrior maidens, but none of them shares with the archetype a removal from the world of men and heterosexual love. In the course of the narratives, each of them is involved in a love story. Each of them, in her capacity as a fighter, also engages in a duel with the man who loves her. If they joust twice, as is the most usual pattern, the woman and the man each win one round. Where the story makes that possible, each couple marries in the end. They marry for love (rare at the time) on the basis (rarer still) of equality, and an equality (rarest of all) demonstrated in military combat.

The dynasty each pair of lovers establishes is the ruling-class family from which the poet’s patrons claim descent. So it was an assertion of imperial legitimacy as well as a courtly compliment for these poets to be saying to the princes who employed them, "Your (many times) great-grandma wore combat boots.”5 The lady knights are wondrous, then, as both warriors and mothers (in fact, they are those special kind of supermothers known as ancestresses). Their military and their maternal experiences are both related and predestined. But there is a developmental trajectory inscribed even in their destiny. They cease being warriors when they fulfill the prophecy leading to their role as founders of a ruling dynasty. They are warriors, and then they are mothers.

In their different ways, the Amazon, the Great Mother, and the Blessed Virgin exert a powerful hold on the Western imagination, whereas the lady knights never achieved the status of myth. Italian painters and composers ransacked the widely read epics of Ariosto and Tasso in search of material to translate into their own media. The result is that there are many visual representations of scenes from the two poems as well as quite a few operas and other musical renditions. But these almost invariably focus on other parts of the narratives, stories in which the female figures are victims to be rescued, enchantresses to be overcome, or simply out of the picture altogether.

The final duel between Tancredi and Clorinda is the sole exception, and that is the one case where the lady knight gets killed instead of married. Its best-known musical setting, Monteverdi’s dramatic sequence of madrigals, concentrates on defeat and lamentation. But we’re already in pretty arcane cultural territory here (compared, at least with comic books), and music lovers unfamiliar with the literary source never meet Clorinda as the beautiful and triumphant Saracen warrior, nor do they get an inkling of the heroic exploits and dynastic contributions of her sister-knights.

So it’s back to the Wonder Woman story we go again to find the combination of Amazon and mother. For, before the time when we come to know her as either Wonder Woman or Diana Prince, Princess Diana is the daughter of Queen Hippolyte, wise and benevolent ruler of Paradise Island. Although all the Amazons of Paradise Island appear young and beautiful, there is a clear difference in generations between the queen, or the serious doctor who treats Steve Trevor, and the maidens who compete with the princess for the privilege of helping America win World War II. They are all immortal (the first episode tells us that Diana gives up both her heritage and, almost incidentally, eternal life to become Wonder Woman) and thus don’t need reproduction and new generations to succeed them; but where did the two existing generations come from? How could Hippolyte ever have become a mother if the subsequent presence of merely one man on the island is so shocking and unsettling to her and to the other women? Wonder Woman never explained. It’s the sort of thing we preadolescents were not supposed to be concerned with, and, indeed, I don’t recall speculating on the whereabouts of the daddies who were so evidently absent from Paradise.

Yet an adult inventing however wondrous a narrative for other adults would have to think up an answer to questions about how a society without men arranges for reproduction and continuity. In the children’s version that Wonder Woman relates, there’s only immortality (talk about women and wonder!), with a kind of pentimento trace, as in the case of the queen and her daughter, of familial bonds that suggest the intervention, at least at some point, of more familiar means of generation.

A man-free (occasionally a gender-free) society is often at the center of feminist utopian or fantasy fiction. Again, adult to adult, the matter of reproduction is explained: either there still are males, although patriarchy has been eliminated; or a new breed of beings “naturally” contains the reproductive apparatus of both sexes (or some other means of breeding); or the progress of science has made men irrelevant to reproductive technology. Each of these narrative solutions entails an element of the amazing, but none centers on a specifically female power to evoke wonder. By contrast, one of the earliest feminist utopias, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, 1915, offers us an all-woman society that has continued for several centuries by the force of sheer female will.6 After the men in Herland’s isolated mountain community were all killed in a savage war, the surviving women learned—slowly and through the force of concentrated maternal desire—to experience pregnancy and parturition independently. They have created a sane and serene community that has endured for generations. The reader may well wonder—in a sane and serene sort of way—at the superior organization Gilman attributes to a world without destructive passions. But the power of parthenogenesis through the creative passion, the passion for motherhood, is true, unadulterated wonder.

Are they still only occasional fantasies, then, these notions we cherish of the women who have this particular version of “it all”? Or is there another venue for Wonder Woman—perhaps in that daily life where, as a very young reader, I was so fearful of seeing her dwindle into a mere (and un-wonderful) woman? And why, finally, am I looking for Wonder Woman? What do I—do we—need from that myth, even in its fragile comic book avatar? Well, the word “empowerment” trips rather too easily off the tongue these days, but it is an authentic need implicit in this particular discourse. The wonder of the woman warrior represents recognition of achievement at what is, in any event, exceptional for women. Arguably, women’s historic subordination derives precisely from our incapacity for physical combat. But, outside the realm of myth, liberation does not mean a mere reversal of oppressor and oppressed, and female empowerment does not come out of the barrel of a gun. (Antonia Fraser’s just-published The Warrior Queens makes it abundantly clear that tyranny is no more acceptable when it wears a female face, or bloodshed no more noble when it is a woman who has ordered the slaughter.) Indeed, even my action-packed Wonder Woman was intended by its creator as an alternative to gorier male-oriented comics, as it tempered masculine violence with an “archetypal” feminine quality he called “love.”

As for empowering by mothering, one reason it’s the conceptual opposite of Amazonism is that, rather than being exceptional for women, it is something only we can do. But in a society that does not honor children or childbearing, this wondrous capacity is far from empowering. As Flo Kennedy has bitterly quipped, “If men could get pregnant in our society, abortion would be a sacrament.” In that same unlikely eventuality, would pregnancy and maternity also be valued? And, in considering these possibilities, might it finally be understood that even though “only women can do it,” does it follow that this is women’s only valid creative act? For it has been fear of this latter assumption—an assumption that has deformed the lives of all women in our society, whether mothers or not—that makes us insist on relegating the mother goddess, like the Amazon, strictly to the universe of images. If the wonder evoked by the ability to be a mother is wonder, after all, at difference, that difference often threatens to obscure our common human possibilities—or rights.

In real life, nowadays, we’re using another word from the comic book lexicon, Superwoman, to characterize someone who is a competent professional and also a competent homemaker and mother. But this Superwoman label bespeaks an underlying story about class as well as gender, because that heroic epithet is rarely applied to a woman raising a houseful of kids on her earnings as a waitress or a switchboard operator or a domestic servant. It is also a story about race, for, as Michele Wallace points out, the Black woman is stereotyped as simultaneously “less of a woman in that she is less ‘femininely’ helpless . . . [but also] really more of a woman in that she is the embodiment of Mother Earth. . . . In other words she is a superwoman.”7 Nevertheless, whenever it is used, ”Superwoman“ implies a narrative about limitation, oppression, and potential exhaustion. You only seem to earn the ”Super" label if you are not only able to do it all superbly, but if you have to do it all.

I now hear my students speak in a rhetoric of“combining” career, relationship, and motherhood. Their language is very foreign to me, although my life includes all those elements. I don’t think of life, though, as “having,” but as being and doing, above all as changing and making change. What I like about trying to merge the Amazon and the mother is that it helps to bring together the power we have been barred from and the (potential) power we have been restricted to. But even this degree of metaphoric “combination” may be too static, for I think Wonder Woman functions best as an ongoing story we tell ourselves, not a manageable goal. And that, too, makes me wonder. . . .

Lillian S. Robinson is Distinguished Visiting Professor of Women’s Studies at San Diego State University. Her books include Sex, Class, and Culture, 1978, and Monstrous Regiment: The Lady Knight in Sixteenth-Century Epic, 1985.

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NOTES

1. For the “origins story,” see Wonder Woman I no. 1 ,1941. I am grateful to Professor Edward J. Robinson of the New York University Physics Department for sharing his memories of comic book arcana as generously as he once shared the comics themselves.

2. It turns out my fears had a sounder historical basis than the general ethos of the ’50s. Wonder Woman and I were both born in 1941. Her creator, William Moulton Marston (who signed the comic books as Charles Moulton), had a radical feminist belief in the power of female love versus male violence and devised his kick-ass heroine as an activist who could force evil to destroy itself “unless Wonder Woman can bind it for constructive use.” After Marston’s death, in 1948, the comic book was continued by male artists who did not share his ideological perspective, and it began going rapidly downhill. See Joanne Edgar, “Wonder Woman Revisited,” Ms. I no. I, July 1972, pp. 52–55.

3. Frederic Wertham, The Seduction of the Innocent, quoted in Jules Feiffer, The Great Comic Book Heroes, New York: Dial Press, 1965, p. 44.

4. For another interpretation of the relationship between worship of the maternal principle and women’s actual social power, see Riane Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future, San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987.

5. On the Renaissance women warriors, see Lillian S. Robinson, Monstrous Regiment: The Lady Knight in Sixteenth-Century Epic, Garland Studies in Comparative Literature, New York: Garland, 1985. Chinese legends of the military female have entered Western literary consciousness through Maxine Hong Kingston’s 1976 memoir, The Woman Warrior.

6. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland, 1915, ed. Ann J. Lane, New York: Pantheon-Random House, 1978.

7. Michele Wallace, Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman, New York: Dial Press, 1979, p. 107.

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