Super Women: A Brief History of Female Superheroes
With the release of Marvel’s latest phase three film, Captain Marvel, in March 2019, discussions of superheroines have ramped up again. Whether they’re debates on the ‘sanctity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’ or discussions on female representation in a male-centric world, people are talking. These heroes date back as far as comics themselves, and now that we’ve seen our newest Super Heroine it’s a great time to take a look back on the history of our Lady Heroes.
In February of 1940 we saw the introduction of what may have been the first female superhero, created by Fletcher Hanks and appearing in Jungle Comics #2, Fantomah, Mystery Woman of the Jungle. Fantomah was a woman who protected her jungle with an array of supernatural abilities including flight, transmutation, and levitation. Fantomah’s comics were published by Fiction House, a publisher known for featuring progressive female characters at the time, including Sheena.
1941 brought in Miss Fury, a superhero created by female artist Tarpe Mills, and the most widely recognized female superhero: Wonder Woman. Princess Diana of Themyscira was a powerful woman, an Amazonian princess raised by her mother and aunts, who was depicted defeating an array of supervillains using an arsenal of advantaged technology. She was created by William Moulton Marston, who was inspired to make a female superhero by his wife, Elizabeth Hollowy, and their life partner, Olive Byrne. Her first appearances were brought to us by All-American Publications, one of the three companies that later merged to form DC Comics.
This era also saw a rise in heroine partners to male heroes, reflecting the growing numbers of women taking on jobs typically belonging to men during World War II. These ‘Partners’ were typically the wives or girlfriends of the heroes, brought in to help their partners. After WWII, the archetype of the Femme Fatale, a woman who refused to stay in her “proper” place, became popular as women were being pushed back into their more traditional roles with the end of the War.
1950’s - 60’s
The ‘50’s and ‘60s saw a decline in those female superheroes, or central female characters in general. In 1954, the Comics Magazine Association of America introduced a code in an attempt to regulate morals of the medium. They tried to create an industry-wide interest in the value of women in the home and the sanctity of marriage. DC Comics implemented their own company-wide regulation stating that women should be secondary in importance in their comics. These all fell in line with the end of the World War II, when the men returned home and the old societal norms were put back into place. However, over at Atlas Comics (known today as Marvel Comics) they were beginning to introduce new heroines, such as Invisible Girl, aka Susan Storm of the Fantastic Four.
1970’s - 80’s
Just like the societal movements during World War II, the feminist movement of the ‘70s was reflected in what’s considered the Bronze Age of Comics as the number of female superheroes increased. Some of them were unfortunately man-hating stereotypes but we also saw the creation of the Women’s Liberation Press, whose first publication was a comic titled That Ain’t Me Babe and featured popular female icons such as Supergirl and Betty & Veronica. They later rebranded to Wimmen’s Comix and continued their underground anthologies until 1992.
In 1977, Ms. Marvel was first introduced as an (albeit failed) attempt at a feminist hero. Marvel also gave their existing heroic women a revamp around the same time in The Uncanny X-Men (1975). Jean Grey’s alter ego Marvel Girl was renamed Phoenix and Lorna Dane became Polaris. This was also the introduction to the arguably most famous black hero, Storm, who was also one of the first female heroes to be portrayed as strong and capable from the beginning.
In the 1980’s these super women started seeing their first leadership roles. Up to this point, though we were seeing more and more heroines, they were still falling second-best to the men. Invisible Girl rebranded into Invisible Woman and chaired the Fantastic Four, while Wasp was given leadership in the Avengers.
1990’s - Present
Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin created a new hero known as Tank Girl, a punk aesthetic girl with a shaved head meant to represent a new modern woman, in the ‘90’s. Another growing trend with these heroes since the ‘90’s is queer identities. In 2006 Batwoman had a revamp that re-introduced her as an ex-military lesbian hero and in 2016 it Wonder Woman was canonically confirmed to be bisexual. Representation began to grow in comics in this modern era, we’re seeing more female superheroes as well as more queer heroes, more heroes of color, and more diverse religions and nationalities.
Kamala Khan’s Ms. Marvel is a young Muslim hero, inspired by one Carol Danvers’ Captain Marvel, from whom she borrowed the name. Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur features a 9-year-old African-American super-genius, Luna Lafayette, who shares a bond with Devil Dinosaur. DC Entertainment gave us a television show featuring Kara Danvers, Supergirl, in 2015 and Wonder Woman’s feature film in 2017. Marvel let us in on more of Black Widow’s backstory in 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, and introduced Scarlet Witch to the team. In 2018 Sony Entertainment’s Into the Spider-verse gave Spider-Gwen her moment on screen, and this year we got Carol Danvers, our newest iteration of Captain Marvel. Not only has she been given her own feature film, but she’s been given her place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And, without spoiling too much, she’s being set up to be a key figure for the final movie in the MCU’s third phase, Avengers: Endgame.
The world of heroes has come a long way since Fantomah and Wonder Woman of the ‘40’s. Hopefully as we go on we’ll see even more female superheroes, more ladies starring in their own comics, shows, and films, and hopefully even more diverse representation amongst them.