Wonder Woman was Trained by Women: Should We Follow Suit?
Is it her experiences in a supportive environment that gave her power or her experiences with her adversary?
4 min read
Like many comic book storylines, the origin of Wonder Woman has changed over time. Wonder Woman's original creator, William Moulton Marston, purposefully had Wonder Woman live and learn on an island inhabited solely by women. It was a story inspired by feminist utopian fiction, looking to explore what happens when men are not the source of the political order. In this original origin story, Wonder Woman is born of clay and given life by the goddess Aphrodite—Zeus is not involved at all. Her physical and mental strength comes solely from training with the Amazons.
Marston was a psychologist. He created Wonder Woman in the 1940s; in 1943 he is quoted in The American Scholar saying, "Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power. ... The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.”
(Take a moment to appreciate that this statement is from the forties: just after medicinal use of birth control became legal but before the civil rights anti-discrimination laws were passed. Women weren't even allowed to serve on juries.)
But Marston died shortly after he created Wonder Woman in 1947. Since then, the story has shifted.
Alan Sizzler Kistler, at The Mary Sue, documents in great detail the many subtle changes to Wonder Woman's character throughout the century. Wonder Woman is given greater power than the other Amazons, gifts from other goddesses, which set her apart. The origin of the Amazons themselves changes slightly, as well as Wonder Woman's reasons for leaving the island.
But the biggest shift was in 2011 when DC Comics relaunched 52 stories. Wonder Woman's story of being born of clay turns into a lie she is told by her mother; instead, Wonder Woman is actually the daughter of Zeus. Additionally, her true power comes not from her training with the Amazons but from her training with the god of war Ares, her brother, and nemesis. As Kistler describes it:
"Wonder Woman went from being someone raised in love, born and guided without the presence of men, given powers almost entirely by goddesses (Hermes being the exception who blessed her with speed and flight), to someone who got her powers from a father and truly became a warrior because of a male God, who Marston considered to be her anti-thesis. I believe Marston would hate these changes."
A serious charge for the female role model of the summer.
There is no doubt that the recent Wonder Woman movie did good for the world, even if it didn't do exactly what every single person had hoped. (SheCanCode blogger Kim Whitney explains why the movie isn't about you anyway; it's about the children it inspires.) But the story of these changes reflects on our own understanding of where powerful women come from.
Advocates for single-sex high schools and colleges argue that the environment allows girls to participate more without being overshadowed by outspoken boys. In a single-sex school, girls are less likely to have a view of feminine versus masculine classes, resulting in more girls taking an interest science and technology classes. The idea is that people in a classroom will expand to fit the space of all possible roles; without boys in the class girls will take up the positions that otherwise they most likely would have been displaced from.
But the argument can go both ways. In 2011, Rebecca Bigler and Lise Eliot published a heated article in Slate about the pitfalls of single-gender education and the lack of strong science to support it. "Just as racial segregation enhances racist attitudes among children," they say, "gender segregation reinforces sexist attitudes and the view that males and females have categorically different types of intellects. ... On the flip side, other research suggests that coeducation offers boys and girls the chance to learn positive skills from each other." They argue that we should be fighting for egalitarian environments in coeducational schools, rather than fighting for the option for students to attend single-sex schools.
But it's hard to do controlled studies on single-sex education. The Atlantic digs into the controversy in great detail, citing "a meta-analysis of 184 studies covering 1.6 million students from 21 countries" that indicates any benefits due to single-sex education over coeducation are nonexistent to minimal. This is not to say that single-sex education is no good but rather the science hasn't found significant differences.
Wonder Woman's varying origin stories give contradictory advice as well. First, her power is uniquely from her female creators; later it is her experiences with men which give her power. Is it her childhood and training with Amazons that turned Diana into Wonder Woman or the experiences she had in the world of men? It can be hard to tease the two apart.
Perhaps the question should not be read as gendered one: is it her experiences in a supportive environment that gave her power or her experiences with her adversary? Surely both are necessary.
Katy Gero has been lucky enough to work at two tech startups with female CEOs. A year after finishing her undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering, she slyly transitioned into data and computer science roles. A long time writer and poet, she loves getting people interested in science and technology and bridging the gap between the arts and engineering.