When Gloria Steinem and Samuel Delany clashed over Wonder Woman

Ann Matsuuchi's paper Wonder Woman Wears Pants: Wonder Woman, Feminism and the 1972 “Women’s Lib” Issue [PDF], published in Monash University's journal Colloquy, looks at the weird history of the Wonder Woman arc that Samuel Delany wrote, which was meant to culminate with Wonder Woman confronting anti-abortion demonstrators, and which was killed by Gloria Steinem, who didn't know where things were headed, but hated the fact that Delany had taken away Wonder Woman's traditional costume.

I came up with a six-issue story arc, each with a different villain: the first was a corrupt department store owner; the second was the head of a supermarket chain who tries to squash a women's food co- operative. Another villain was a college advisor who really felt a woman's place was in the home and who assumed if you were a bright woman, then something was probably wrong with you psychologically, and so forth. It worked up to a gang of male thugs trying to squash an abortion clinic staffed by women surgeons. And Wonder Woman was going to do battle with each of these and triumph. [Samuel Delany]

Delany’s fictional approach here considers, never assumes, the politics that inform daily life: how we eat, sleep and fuck. These mundane issues rarely arise in the universe of comic book superheroes. Wonder Woman faces an immediate need to “sell out” in order to support herself. The story proceeds in a manner that is at times as blunt and didactic as the traditional comic books often were, but identity and its formation is questioned here in a manner tied materially to everyday life. [Ann Matsuuchi]

(Thanks, Br!)


  1. The only bright spot during this arc, for me, was the introduction of Fritz Leiber’s characters, Fafhrd and Gray Mouser, to the comics (in issue #202). Their own series, Sword of Sorcery, ran for five issues beginning the following year (1975).

  2. So the story went something like this:

    – Publishers grudgingly let Samuel Delany experiment with a bold new storyline, then start to get cold feet when real shit gets tackled

    -Meanwhile, Gloria Steinem rather casually writes something like “oh, Wonder Woman’s in civvies now? Darn, her iconic costume is an inspiration to generations of women”


    This just goes to show that you shouldn’t change your message because of assholes who do things in bad faith. They’re going to find an excuse to do what they want anyway

    1. Comics–in particular, the Big Two comics companies, DC and Marvel–didn’t really deal with feminism very well at all, and even though one might be tempted to give them points for trying, there’s also a significant degree of self-congratulation implied in their efforts. Which, at any rate, could be quite bizarre: Marvel had Thundra, along with a number of heroines that were distaff versions of male heroes (Ms. Marvel, She-Hulk, Spiderwoman), and Wonder Woman, during her pantsuited phase, tangled with THEM!, who although it’s not said outright, are heavily implied to be a lesbian gang that forcibly recruits young women into the lifestyle via S&M, and are defeated partly with the (again implied) help of the Mafia. No, really.

      I don’t know who wrote the issue or where it fits in with Delany’s and Steinem’s brief involvement with the title, but I think that it’s just as typical of what the Big Two were doing, or trying to do, with and to their female characters as their more enlightened efforts with better creators, and Delany was probably better off not being involved with superhero comics in the long run.

      1. You mean, of course, that the Big Two don’t deal with feminism very well.  (DC is in some ways worse now than it was then.  Marvel’s doing better… but that’s “less badly”.)

        1.  Right; Matsuuchi’s paper (which I was disappointed to see didn’t mention THEM!) deals with some of the later developments in Wonder Woman’s character, and excerpts a panel that shows Gloria Steinem during her undercover stint as a Playboy Bunny, but it seems to have been put in more as an inside joke rather than for any substantive reason. More typical is the use of legacy characters such as Catwoman, Voodoo, and Starfire for some ridiculous and embarrassing fan-service moments in the New 52 reboot. Marvel may be less embarrassing, and genuinely interested in drawing in female readers, but there’s still the mindset among the overwhelmingly male staff that leads to things like “Her-oes.”

  3. Delaney didn’t take away Wonder Woman’s traditional costume.  The writers that preceded him did.  Those writers would be Dennis O’ Neil, Mike Sekowsky and Robert Kanigher.  As usual, misattribution happens, and it favors the person who’s more famous.  Delaney did work on Wonder Woman, but he didn’t get rid of the classic costume.

    1. Right, as Avedon Carol points out this was part of the Diana Prince costume-less era that began in 1968: http://www.amazonarchives.com/ww179.htm. I don’t think this was meant as a misattribution, but Cory’s wording is misleading.

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