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Where are all the women?

Article / 19 April 2021

By Rebecca Olsen

We’ve all heard of Wonder Woman. She’s as tough as they come, smart as a whip, and was there at the creation of the Justice League, way back in issue #28 of The Brave and The Bold, in March, 1960. But she’s been around a lot longer than that. She made her debut to the world in October, 1941.

Who would Superman be without Lois Lane? She’s been the star reporter for the Daily Planet since day one, way back in 1938.

But have you heard of Katy Keane? Or Mopsy? Or Phantom Lady?

Nyoka the Jungle Girl starred in a whopping 76 issues from 1946-1953. Suzie starred in 52 from 1945-1954.

If you’re not a real comic book guru, chances are you’ve been missing out on a lot of incredible leading ladies. The website Comic Book Plus has a category for leading ladies, which boasts 117 different comics, and over 1,000 different issues.

If you look closely, the vast majority of them went out of print in the 50s. A few of them made it to the 60s.

And if you look around the Wikipedia list of superheroines, you’ll notice that there seemed to be a burst of new female characters in the 80s. Though there still aren’t that many that come to mind when we’re talking about leading ladies.

So what happened? War, probably.

When the US finally got involved in WWII, the total number of deployed servicemen nearly quadrupled in one year, from about 450,000 in 1940 to about 1.8 million in 1941. By 1942, the total doubled, to 3.9 million. By 1945, the US had about 12.2 million active duty troops deployed around the world. To put that into perspective, that’s just shy of 10% of the total population of the US at the time.

The war created a void in the US workforce. To make up the slack, women were recruited to replace men in repurposed factories. And they totally crushed it! Rosie the Riveter became a new role model for women and girls all over the country.

We Can Do It! was the original feminist battle cry, and was even propagated by the US government. And rightly so. The men may have been overseas in the trenches, but they were using supplies built by women. The war effort depended on women. And the economy depended on women.

Here’s a Rosie putting rivets on a bomber plane.

By Alfred T. Palmer - This image is available from the United States Library of Congress

So it should come as no surprise that there were at least 117 leading ladies in comic books in the 40s and 50s. Women had risen to a new place of power and strength, and the popular culture of the time was celebrating and mirroring what was seen in society.

So then why do our leading ladies start fading away in the mid to late 50s and early 60s?

The war ended (and thankfully so!)

The soldiers came home to parades and great fanfare, and also a society changed.

Women were used to independence and being praised for their strength. In just a few short years they’d emerged from their kitchens, supported the economy and helped considerably bring about a swifter end to the most catastrophic war in history. Simply put, women had risen to the occasion. And in doing so they had redefined American society.

Unfortunately for American women at the time, however, their male counterparts weren’t at home to witness and evolve in the same way and at the same pace.

After the parades ended and the bands went home, American men expected to go back to life as usual - that is, pre-war life, the husband going off to work and the wife staying at home in the kitchen.

To say that the readjustment post-WWII was difficult for everyone would be an understatement. The automotive industry, for example, refused to hire women after the war ended and factories were repurposed back to peacetime production. These were the same women who were deemed competent enough to build airplanes. After all, the men were back, and they had always enjoyed controlling the labor market. And now that they were war heroes, who could possibly stand in their way?

While many women found themselves being pushed out of skilled jobs, many found clerical positions, and the rise of the office secretary was born. The glass ceiling and the wage gap were born at about the same time. When they did find new jobs, they were nearly universally lower-paying than the ones they’d held during the war.

I suppose secretaries don’t make as credible super heroines as Rosie the Riveter. The We Can Do It! posters must have been torn down and used to fuel the furnace. And popular culture must have done what its always done, followed the moods and trends of the time.

The American Dream was reborn, and with it came a new call to women, “take care of your man.” Post WWII women married younger, and had more children. Even if they wanted to work, there was less time to do so. Magazines featured more and more ads for white picket fences and shiny new appliances, modern conveniences for the modern housewife.

TV shows depicted the ideal American woman as happy, made-up, dressed well, and waiting for her husband with a martini as soon as he got home from the office. Long forgotten were the days of fear and uncertainty.

Women weren’t being called on to be heroic now that the world was enjoying a time of peace, so they hung up their capes and went on with their lives.