• Jul 6, 2012

"Wonder Woman for President:" Feminism in 'Lasso of Truth' (Web Exclusive)

One thread uniting the varied parts of Lasso of Truth is the play’s exploration of feminism through the 20th century. Feminism is the advocacy for women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men. Although a concrete beginning or progression of feminism is murky and difficult to define, the term was popularized and found a coherent form with female suffragists demanding the right to vote in the early 1900s. The ideology of feminism has continued through the present day as an ongoing discussion about understanding and combating the nature of gender inequality pushed forward by both women and men who believe that there should be no difference in opportunity based on sex.  

Feminism is generally structured into four periods, separated by shifts in the goals of the movement: pre-20th century calls for female liberation titled by some scholars as “protofeminism,” followed by first wave feminism in the early 1900s, second wave feminism in the 60s and 70s, and third wave feminism of the 90s and 2000s.

The outspoken voices of protofeminism largely attempted to bring attention to the lack of rights for women. One prominent protofeminist was Mary Wollstonecraft, often called the mother of feminism, whose 1792 work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman explored the deep inequity of gender roles in marriage. Wollstonecraft argued for greater access to education for females, contending that equal opportunity for a real education would make women more equal partners in their marriages, rather than being relegated to the status of property. 

The main goal of first-wave feminism was to gain women’s suffrage. This debate went on from the late 19th century through the early 20th. The end of World War I proved to be the catalyst for women earning the vote in America; after Woodrow Wilson declared that WWI was a war for democracy, women protested their own lack of democratic voice at home with suffragists parading by the thousands. The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that gave women the right to vote was passed in June 1919 and was finally ratified a year later. Some states did not ratify the amendment for decades.

Second wave feminism characterizes a period from the early 1960s through the late 1980s. While first-wave feminists had focused on the right to vote, second-wave feminists focused on cultural inequality and further legal rights, such as gender-based discrimination, workplace rights, and reproductive rights. This movement also asked women to examine the ways in which their private lives were inherently politicized and were reflective of male dominance in society as a whole. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (an exposé on discontented housewives) and Gloria Steinem’s Ms. Magazine were key voices during this time.

Third wave feminism began in the 1990s in response to a characterization of feminism that third wave feminists felt over-emphasized the experiences of upper middle class white women. Rooted in the rights gained during second wave feminism, this wave of the feminist movement largely called for greater female empowerment and more subjectivity and inclusivity in the “female voice,” particularly for women of color. In 1991, Ms. Magazine published an article entitled “Becoming the Third Wave,” written by Rebecca Walker in response to the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas after he had been accused of sexually harassing Anita Hill. Walker focused on this case as an example of the large issue of oppression of the female voice. In the years following, third wave feminist leaders, like Audre Lorde and Gloria Anzaldua, and the Riot grrrl underground feminist punk rock movement sought to give women control of their own expression.

Wonder Woman: Feminist Icon
In the 1940s—a window between the victory of the first wave and the beginning of the second—William Moulton Marston created the first (and only) major superheroine in comic books: Wonder Woman. This character was a symbolic statement of support for the feminist movement. As a self-made warrior equipped with magical tools but no particularly magical abilities, Wonder Woman represented the inner and outer strength possible for any woman. Coming from an island sanctuary for the all-female Amazons, Wonder Woman had no preconceptions of her worth in relation to men—if anything, Marston wrote from a belief that females were fundamentally better suited to positions of power than men. An advocate for justice but also for peace, Wonder Woman made her enemies understand the value of equality and made her female companions realize their own self-worth. She was the embodiment of female ability and intelligence.

Decades later, Wonder Woman was appropriated by second wave feminists as an icon of feminist values. However, the imagery used was not the contemporary Wonder Woman that existed in comic books at the time: by the late 1960s, Wonder Woman had undergone a major makeover—she’d surrendered her powers, become a boutique owner, gained a karate mentor named I-Ching, and looked far more sexualized, wearing mini dresses and mod leggings rather than her former stars and stripes. This “new” Wonder Woman was woefully in opposition to the core values of feminism.

Instead, the second wave feminists revived their childhood heroine: the “old” Wonder Woman of the early to mid 1940s, with her strength, intelligence, and goodness. Gloria Steinem, who read Marston’s Wonder Woman growing up, chose to feature his version on the cover of the first publication of Ms. Magazine in 1972, thereby tying together the vestiges of first wave feminism to the issues at the forefront in second wave feminism. In response to the question of whether women should have equal rights across the board, the symbol of the original Wonder Woman was an unequivocal and emphatic “yes.”

Wonder Woman in Lasso of Truth
As an exploration of the creation of Wonder Woman, her role as a feminist icon especially in the 1970s, and the way she influenced current feminists, Carson Kreitzer’s Lasso of Truth brings all of these aspects of feminism into conversation: in addition to the character of Marston being a feminist, his wife Hannah and their lover Lilly represent the early feminists who, after women received the vote, ached for greater equality—smart, capable women who refused to be confined by the box built for them by their era.

In the scenes from the 1970s, Gloria Steinem herself berates DC Comics for allowing the Amazonian heroine to be stripped of her powers—Steinem really was instrumental in the reinstatement of Wonder Woman’s powers and superhero costume in 1973.

In the 1990s, the character of the Girl searches for an original copy of Wonder Woman’s first appearance in print because of the foundational role Wonder Woman played during her childhood in the 1970s: she is a modern feminist seeking to understand the feminism of the past in order to move forward in the ongoing struggle against inequality.

Much like the Girl reexamines foundational moments in both her own past and the past of feminism, contemporary feminism is a constant reexamination of the ways American society is fundamentally structured on early (and persisting) assumptions of female inequality. Although the state of equality in America has exponentially moved forward since the days in which Marston first created his superheroine, modern feminists continue the conversation, constantly working to protect their already established rights and to break down the barriers to equality that still exist.