How a Magazine Cover From the 1970s Helped Wonder Woman Win Over Feminists

Nearly 45 years after they put the female superhero on the cover of Ms. magazine's first issue, the players behind the cover consider its impact, and the new movie.
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Nearly 45 years after they put the female superhero on the cover of Ms. magazine's first issue, the players behind the cover consider its impact, and the new movie.
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One hardly had even enough time to shout "Suffering Sappho!" before feminist critiques of the new Wonder Woman film emerged online following the film's release in early June. As superheroes go, Wonder Woman had some serious feminist credentials: She's the brainchild of William Moulton Marston, a psychologist who created her in the early 1940s in order to counter what he called "the bloodcurdling masculinity" of comics, and was inspired by the suffragette movement. But the film's fight scenes have been more polarizing, prompting some female audiences to shed both real and figurative tears of joy, and others to decry that the new Wonder Woman (played by Gal Gadot) is a token woman in a men's film, too scantily clad to be a figure of female empowerment. "By the time the action got too fast-paced and loud for any more characters to marvel at Diana’s fine bod and bone structure, I was about an hour past being sick of the 'sexy lady is also hypercompetent' joke," wrote Slate's Christina Cauterucci.

None of this hand-wringing is new: Wonder Woman and her looks have been the subject of feminist debate for nearly as long as she's been published. Moreover, Wonder Woman is the first film starring a female superhero to emerge since 2005's ill-fated Elektra: It's only natural that viewers starved of representation onscreen should scrutinize that representation.

But the particular attention that feminists are paying to the film in 2017 also owes something to the debut of Ms. magazine nearly 45 years ago. In 1972, Ms.'s first cover featured Wonder Woman underneath a banner reading "Wonder Woman for President." It helped secure the hero's place as an icon for liberal second-wave feminism. Even today, the cover is still hailed as a seminal moment: Those curious about Wonder Woman before the new movie was released on June 2nd might have bumped into a mention of the Ms. cover on one of the several feminist histories of the character on the Internet. Once the film was released, some of those joining in on the debate about whether Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman is feminist cited the cover—as evidence both that feminists should embrace the movie, and that Wonder Woman bears an impossible burden as a symbol for an entire movement. Though Marston planted the seeds for feminist debate in his first wave-inspired storylines, Ms. gave Wonder Woman the veneer of institutional approval 30 years later.

The Ms. cover made a powerful statement, one that shaped how feminists talked about her for years to come. Wonder Woman had, in the '40s, drawn female readers with storylines that demonstrated how women's compassion makes them a greater agent for social justice. They were thus "superior" to men, in Marston's words.

In a sea of women's magazines featuring models, actresses, and delicate hors d'oeuvres, the Ms. cover suggested female readers had more on their minds than beauty hacks and dinner.

But the Ms. cover "cemented her place as a feminist icon, albeit in a slightly new form," comics historian and Wonder Woman Unbound: The Curious History of the World's Most Famous Heroine author Tim Hanley writes in an email. "Ms. updated Wonder Woman, shifting the focus away from female superiority to sisterhood and equality, essentially making her a mascot of the women's movement." That's an ethos that still lives on: Viewers of the Wonder Woman film are divided between lauding the titular character's stand for equality for all people, or criticizing the movie for not doing enough with themes of sisterhood.

And so, after the release of the new film, we asked two women responsible for the cover about the story behind it—and what they thought of the new movie.

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Pat Carbine was an editorial director at McCall's when she began talking to the prominent writer and activist Gloria Steinem about starting the publication that would become Ms. Steinem wanted to directly address issues modern women cared about, rather than the domestic topics often covered in the so-called "Seven Sisters" magazines—publications like Better Homes and Gardens, Family Circle, and, yes, McCall's. She also cared deeply about keeping publication ownership and editorial control in women's hands.

In one of two brainstorming meetings that Steinem helped organize to discuss the idea, Steinem suggested that the venture resemble one of the several radical newsletters of the time. Carbine was one of several journalists and editors present who protested. "In order to be taken seriously and really effect change, it was going to have to look and feel like a woman's magazine," Carbine says she told Steinem.

In order to secure financing, the volunteer Ms. staff published a preview issue; it sold out in eight days. In January of 1972, as the issue was selling out, Carbine resigned from McCall's and came on board as publisher. She soon tasked the staff with brainstorming the first magazine's cover. "One of the things one had to think about as crucial—really crucial—was a stunning statement that was going to make a difference in terms of how it appeared on newsstands in combination with other magazines," Carbine says.

The Ms. staff wanted to compete on the newsstands with women's magazines, but also convey that it was closer in spirit and content to news and analysis magazines like Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report than it was to Vogue. The staff also didn't want to feature an individual woman on the cover, which it figured would place too much pressure on an individual to symbolize the entire feminist movement. For its preview issue one year earlier, for instance, Ms. had used an illustration of a many-handed woman juggling objects representing disparate tasks and pressures in a woman's life—a clock, a skillet, a typewriter, a rake, a mirror, among other items—that resembled an Indian god, rather than a real-life figure.

"We wanted something that was more representative," says Joanne Edgar, a writer and editor who joined Ms. magazine while it was producing the preview issue.

Wonder Woman returned to the cover of Ms. for its 35th and 40th anniversaries.

Wonder Woman returned to the cover of Ms. for its 35th and 40th anniversaries.

Inspiration struck when Edgar saw an illustration by DC Comics artist Murphy Anderson. Anderson had been commissioned to make art for a story Ms. was planning to write on Wonder Woman. In his illustration, Wonder Woman can be seen clad in her classic red, blue, and yellow costume and signature crown, flaunting her magical powers: Having grown at least five times in size, Wonder Woman was saving a small town from war with her golden "lasso of truth," carrying it as if it were a light bag of groceries. Perhaps inspired by Wonder Woman's No. 7's cover—which showed Wonder Woman speaking to a crowd from a podium and was called "Wonder Woman for President"—Anderson had added a banner reading the same. In a sea of women's magazines featuring models, actresses, and delicate hors d'oeuvres, the Ms. cover suggested female readers had more on their minds than beauty hacks and dinner.

The image resonated with Edgar—1972 was an election year, and Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress, was running for the Democratic Party's nomination. The U.S., meanwhile, was still locked in an unpopular war in Vietnam. Wonder Woman's origins as a peace- and justice-seeking hero—and onetime political figure—felt appropriate to represent Ms.'s progressive values, Edgar says.

Edgar rushed into Carbine's office and proposed Wonder Woman for the cover. Carbine wasn't familiar with the hero and asked for some images. When she saw the art, she says she told the young editor: "Oh, without a doubt, this is it. This is what we want to do with our cover."

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Steinem, a longtime fan of Wonder Woman, was originally going to write the cover story. But when Steinem got tied up in writing a story on women's voting patterns, and Ms. had its cover, but no cover story, with days to go before copy was due, the piece was assigned to another childhood fan of Wonder Woman: Edgar.

"At the time, it was the absolute scariest thing in my life," Edgar says. Before joining Ms., Edgar had written for a news magazine called Facts on File, where she summarized news and covered Latin America and international economic policy. She was still a relatively green writer. "The idea of writing personally just scared the hell out of me."

Edgar wrote the story in longhand, on the dining-room table in her apartment in New York, the weekend before the magazine copy's deadline. She began it with a scene from her childhood—trading comics on the sidewalk growing up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where the boys in her neighborhood deemed that one Superman comic was worth three Wonder Women comics.

Edgar can remember taking her comic books to an apple tree in her backyard so that her mom couldn't come find her and ask her to wash the dishes, or clean her room. "Being 'just a girl' myself, I hid my admiration for Wonder Woman and put my stakes on Superman," she wrote. "But up in my apple tree, I read Wonder Woman anyway."

Edgar argued that the original, World War II-era Wonder Woman represented the feminist philosophy of its creator, but, after Marston died in 1947, the writers that followed diminished Wonder Woman's feminist ethos. Some writers wrote the Amazons as robotic warriors that expressed few emotions; in 1968, writer Denny O'Neil and artist Mike Sekowsky scripted a plotline that saw Wonder Woman's kin, the Amazons, travel to another dimension to renew their powers. Wonder Woman chose not to go—thereby relinquishing her powers—in order to stay in New York with her love interest, Steve Trevor. "In other words, she became a female James Bond but without his sexual exploits," Edgar wrote in Ms. "The double standard applied even to her."

At the time, DC Comics was attempting to adapt the series to appeal to contemporary women. Later that year, while Wonder Woman was still power-less, DC Comics published a "Women's Lib Issue" penned by science-fiction writer Samuel R. Delany. The first issue showed Wonder Woman protesting a villainous store owner who denies his female workers equal pay; the series was canceled before one controversial issue, showing Wonder Woman defending an abortion clinic from male thugs, could be released.

"Oh, without a doubt, this is it. This is what we want to do with our cover."

The next year, the brand launched a revamped Wonder Woman that restored the heroine's magic lasso, bulletproof bracelets, and invisible airplane. Steinem remembers that "the person in charge of Wonder Woman call[ed] me up from DC Comics. He said: ‘OK. She has her magical powers back, her lasso, her bracelets, she has Paradise Island back, and she has a black African Amazon sister named Nubia. Now will you leave me alone!'"

While some radical feminists protested that Ms. was holding up superwomen as icons instead of "down-to-Earth" women, others embraced Wonder Woman as a new symbol for the movement, an old superhero rediscovered in a more empowered age. In 1973, the Los Angeles Women's Center put the classic-looking Wonder Woman, fighting a man with a speculum, on the cover of a newsletter instructing women on how to do their own vaginal exams. Two years later, the Lynda Carter-starring Wonder Woman television series premiered on CBS.

"It's no coincidence that when the first season of Wonder Woman debuted in 1975 it was set in the 1940s," Hanley wrote me. "The show also had a strong focus on modern feminist values like sisterhood and equality rather than Marston's endorsement of female superiority."

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Nearly 45 years later, Patty Jenkins' new Wonder Woman is, at least in part, continuing to frame the classic Wonder Woman as an icon for sisterhood and equality. Portrayed as a naïve immigrant from Paradise Island, the new Wonder Woman expects humankind to treat others equally, and is disappointed when they don't (she is baffled, for instance, by the restrictiveness of women's apparel in Edwardian London, and that women are not allowed in Allied spy meetings). Though the movie sees her enjoying full use of her powers, Wonder Woman treats the misfit men on her expedition into Nazi territory as equals, not inferiors; and while she spars with Steve Trevor's secretary Etta Candy about expectations for women in the movie's World War I-era setting, the film also shows her developing a friendship with Candy by way of jokes about the oppression of women.

(The movie has also fostered sisterhood at the box office: According to a recent comScore/Screen Engine PostTrak exit poll, women under 25 are constituting 23 percent of moviegoers—and 32 percent of that demographic is attending with two to four female friends.)

"The spirit is absolutely right up there with what we had in mind," Edgar says of the new film. "It just reaches into this place where you believe that things can work. That the belief in justice, and the belief in love, and using power to achieve that, is possible."

While Edgar notes that the amount of violence in the film isn't particularly in line with the feminist icon she wrote about—Marston created Wonder Woman because he believed masculine comic books were too violent—she appreciated that Wonder Woman's romance with Trevor was a minor subplot, and that the choreography of fight scenes underscored Wonder Woman's strength.

Carbine says it was impossible not to think of the early days of Ms. when she watched the movie—specifically, the the timeless requirement for women to fight patriarchal policies.

"These days, on almost any front you can name—in terms of health or finance or recognition of worth—we are fighting a battle that's becoming as intense as it was back then," Carbine says. Roe v. Wade—which was decided one year after the first Ms. cover was published—could be overturned or narrowed in scope now that Trump-nominated Justice Neil Gorsuch is sitting on the Supreme Court, she notes. "The work is not done yet, and it's just the moment for Wonder Woman to be re-emerging in a new form."

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