Second Wave Feminism and the Silver Age (1961-1975)
Ah, the supermom. A woman who “has it all” — the one who both works full time AND shoulders all the responsibilities of child-rearing and housekeeping. In 2015, the supermom is generally recognized as an unattainable fantasy. But Laura D’Amore, an American Studies Professor at Roger Williams University, says that we still hold this mythical supermom in our minds as the ideal American mother. Even if the title doesn’t apply to lots of women.
“The supermom is not usually used for the single mom. It’s usually not used to talk about women of color. It’s usually not used to talk about lesbian women. Women who are in domestic partnerships versus nuclear family partnerships. … [The idea of the supermom] keeps us rooted to this ideal of a nostalgic 1950s idea of the home that very few people have or have access to.”
So it may surprise you to learn that the idea of the supermom emerged in the 1960s out of a second-wave feminist push for women to get out of the home again. Going into the ’60s, wartime women at work — and images of powerful working women like Rosie the Riveter — had been replaced in the cultural imagination by the ’50s housewife in a freshly pressed dress vacuuming a plush carpet in heels.
And that was no accident. The government used mass-media campaigns to encourage women to leave the workforce to free up jobs for returning male veterans. Women we’d now call second-wave feminists didn’t find the prospect of living up to that image very fulfilling, says D’Amore. So mainstream feminists pushed back. They wanted to be back in the workforce, but without giving up the idea of having a family.
At the same time, comics were going through their own revolution called “the Silver Age.” It was characterized by a rise in superhero comics, and spanned from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s. And one of the things that started showing up in these comics? Female superheros — with children (both literal children and, well, groups of male teammates that needed ‘mothering’).
While comics didn’t invent the supermom, comics writers in the ’60s and ’70s wrote stories that reflected the emerging shift in American motherhood. This is probably easiest to see with examples from Marvel of that time, though superheroines like Wonder Woman and Super Girl were getting upgrades from DC. Stan Lee and his writing teams declared it their mission to make superheroes and superheroines out of real people, with relatable lives and stories, struggling with the issues that their contemporary and nonfiction non-supers were dealing with. Plus, you know. A tiny genetic mutation here and there.
“So they’re looking to match the Zeitgeist, the spirit of that particular time. And they just can’t help but be influenced by the kinds of stories and the kinds of experiences that they know or the people that they’re reading about or seeing on television are experiencing … So the people who identify the supermom as a thing to aspire to — in history and in the present — may never have read a comic book or seen a comic book movie. But they still identify the superheroine in an idea of the supermom. They still see the cape and the briefcase and the image of the working mother who “has it all” and is also a superheroine.”
Comic book writers at the time — and let’s not kid ourselves, today as well — are hardly feminist scholars. But it’s clear that the comics writers of the Silver Age wrote female characters struggling with the same issues that they saw contemporary, flesh-and-blood women debating and struggling with. Says D’Amore:
“If we allow the story to exist within the context of its time, which is this palatable story of second-wave feminism in which women are starting to become interested in being self-actualized — this is a model of somebody who is doing that.”
“What you see a lot, with Marvel in particular, are team books with one female character on the team in the Silver Age, and that character’s identity being primarily based around her being “the girl.” So you’ve got Janet Van Dyne, The Wasp, on the Avengers and Jean Gray on the X-Men (Marvel Girl during that era). Sue Storm in the Fantastic Four. And they end up basically being the “Team Moms.” They’re the ones who mend stuff, they’re the ones who help do the dishes … they’re the ones who design the costumes.”
If you think that sounds problematic, consider the context. These are some of the first Superheroines to appear in comics after the Comics Code who actually have meaningful roles as team members, says D’Amore.
“They’re not respected as much, they’re not given the same powers. They’re considered to be victims, they’re still often victimized in the comics. They’re still set up for storylines that would technically place them socially inferior to men. So there’s still that happening. BUT that they’re there? That they’re doing literally a job that “a man does” historically as a superhero/heroine, means that they were getting some respect. More respect than they had been getting.”
And in Edidin’s opinion, that would have gone a long way for young female readers:
“I think that something that goes with being underrepresented is that everything feels important. When there aren’t a lot of characters who look like you or sound like you or overlap with your experiences, having them at all feels like a really big deal. So, it would have been important to me that Jean Gray was there, that she was on the X-Men, that she did stuff.”
Sue Storm — a.k.a Invisible Mom
The earliest super supermom (and, in fact, the only Marvel supermom to actually give birth to an actual baby during the Silver Age!) was Sue Storm. Sue Storm, a.k.a.: the Invisible Girl, gained her powers alongside her teammates after exposure to cosmic rays during a scientific mission in space. The Fantastic Four didn’t intend to be superheroes. They’re real people and they don’t hide their identities. And though they’re not a “traditional” family, they project the conservative ideal of the nuclear family of the 1950s, D’Amore says.
“So, Fantastic Four has Reed and Sue, who are like the mother-father. And they have Johnny Storm who is hot-headed … literally, he’s flaming … hot-headed kid. And The Thing, also, you know, is either a cousin or an uncle or could also be a teenage son, depending on the day that he’s having. So he becomes this “relation.” So they look like a nuclear family, even though they’re not, and in that nuclear family role, Sue Storm plays the mother but she’s also still the superheroine. And that in itself is subversive.”
Of course, they’re a family with members who are genetically incapable of being “traditional” — Sue Storm as Invisible Girl can not only turn invisible (ah, duh) but also create incredibly strong force fields. That she not only has powers but uses them, D’Amore says:
“[It]…inherently makes her someone who is going to disrupt the conservative status quo of the nuclear family. Because she isn’t performing it in the way that the conservative ideal would have liked her to do, which would have been to stay at home. She still vacuums, she still cooks, but then she goes out and saves the world.”
Sue Storm definitely still vacuums and cooks. In one panel from 1963, the team has come home to HQ from a long space battle. All of the guys flop down on sofas and arm chairs. Sue, with her hands on her hips, stands in the middle of the room and resolves to…practice some self-care? Oh, no. Get cleaning.
Sue and Reed are more than mother and father figures: They end up getting married, and later have a baby boy, Franklin. Sue’s role as team member becomes increasingly complicated as she becomes a wife who worries about (and fights with) her husband, and then a mom who’s torn between saving the world and raising her child. While this may have resonated with working moms in the 1960s, not every comics reader was excited about the supermom story arc, Edidin says.
“[Marvel] got this letter from someone saying, ‘She’s useless, she’s pointless!’ And they decided to respond in the comic because they were so affronted by this. And their response was, ‘How dare you call her pointless and useless, she’s a wife and mother!’ Which was kind of amazing! And that was basically the tone of the Silver Age.”
As if to prove how powerful the tension between work and home was for supermoms, the Fantastic Four arc dealt with mom-guilt very explicitly. In 1973, says D’Amore, “having lost her nanny in the previous issue, literally, because the nanny disappeared into thin air,” Sue was forced to bring Franklin with her to work. As you can probably guess, yes: A bunch of bad guys break into the Fantastic Four’s headquarters and Sue is forced to defend Franklin (The Fantastic Four #130, 1973). In her article on Silver Age supermoms, D’Amore writes: “She fought all four attackers for several panels (never underestimate a mother’s strength in defending her children!).” Reed Richards, Sue’s husband, wasn’t exactly supportive.
Reed: Sue! I didn’t free you so you could get into this fray! Grab Franklin — and get out of here — now!!
Wizard: Yes, do that, dear lady! Then the odds will be four to three — and that should be enough for us to win nicely, don’t you think?
Sue: He’s right, Reed! The battle is seesawing now — a straw could send it either way! I can’t stop fighting — and I won’t! Besides, our baby’s safer than you think — behind a force field even the Trapster’s paste can’t smash!
Reed: Sue — I’m ordering you — keep out of this! I won’t let the mother of my child…
Oh, yes. Classic Reed Richards. Actually, Reed’s jerk-ery isn’t unique — his patriarchal sentiments reflected that of the U.S. government at the time, and the moral pinnacle of America. In 1971, President Nixon vetoed an affordable childcare bill, insisting that Americans should instead rely on a “family-centered approach” to child rearing. If Sue couldn’t find a proper nanny, she was going to have to disappear back into the household from whence she came, lest the nuclear family be threatened.
Shortly after taking Franklin to HQ, Sue realized that being a supermom was nearly impossible. And she chose (temporarily, of course) “traditional” motherhood over working motherhood.
It didn’t really work out for Sue in the Silver Age. She’s plagued by guilt most of the time because she’s constantly split in two between her job (ahem, fighting evil … kind of a big deal) and her duties as a mother, which demand that she cares for her kid above all else and keeps him from harm. Sue can’t “have it all” — she can only ever have her job at the expense of her child or vice-versa — all the while being tormented by Reed “Jerk of the Millenium” Richards, as I like to call him. In the next comics era, the Bronze Age (1975ish to 1985ish), Sue Storm recovers a bit. She considers changing her name from “Invisible Girl” to “Invisible Woman,” since she has become a powerful working mother. (But that’s a different blog post.)
The Supermom in 2015
To some extent, we’ve come a long way since the 1960s and 1970s supermom. She still exists in 2015, but rather than being pushed to “have it all,” most real (i.e., not genetically modified) supermoms are pushed to “find a balance.”
Of course, actual super supermoms have it rough: they can’t possibly find work-family balance because they literally embody their work. Sue Storm can’t exactly leave invisibility at the office. It’s no less difficult to find a balance in real life, though, when social systems like universal, affordable, high-quality day care are mere fantasies and most families have to be dual-income earners to survive. D’Amore says:
“If we had policies that normalized and universalized the ways that mothers were treated when they first had babies, and we paid them for their time off, we insured their well-being and their health, then also we would be creating a world in which motherhood is not as much of an individual, personal struggle … thereby making it a little bit less impossible.”
There’s some hope for mothers in comics, although it’s not usually in the mainstream titles that we see successes. Even when Marvel did X-Men (2013), we got the promise of a story line that would focus on the best and brightest female X-(Wo)Men: Rachel Gray! Storm! Kitty Pryde! Psylocke! Rogue! Jubilee! … BOOM!
Then the first issue arrived. Yes, it was written and drawn by men. That was OK, that was OK. But then the second issue arrived. And there, front and center, was Jubilee holding ………. a baby?!?
The thing is, even though introducing a baby to a superheroines storyline is a totally non-essential and probably a vastly uncreative move on the writers’ part, it was actually revealing of something that works for super supermoms. And that’s that it doesn’t take a village to raise a child, it takes a super team. Edidin says:
“So the thing that fascinates me about how parenting ended up working when it works in comics, especially superhero comics, is that it almost always ends up being large-scale co-parenting by an entire superhero team. So like, Jubilee’s got this baby that she’s picked up. And she’s still superheroing around. … And she lives in a house with a steady supply of super-powered babysitters on hand!”
Of course, because comics didn’t invent the supermom, the trajectories of super supermoms and real supermoms, though connected, haven’t ever been quite in sync. And so, while Jubilee might have learned a thing or two about work-motherhood balance and have the support network she needs by 2013, the legacy of 1960s and ’70s super supermoms is still what’s in the ether. Edidin says:
“My frustration with the Silver Age is largely with its legacy, because I feel like none of those characters … ever really shook off the limitations of having been written by the writers they were written by during that era. And because they’re the first ones, because they’re the flagship characters, that influence has continued to ripple in how we see them and also in their social impact.”
And still, what mom wouldn’t want telepathy? How wonderful would it be to head off to a full-time, high-paying, rewarding job and also know where your kids were and whether they were safe and happy, at all times? Being a supermom would be incredible — if only it was possible. Fifty-five years of history (and 55 years of mainstream comics) have shown us: It isn’t.
By Laura D’Amore
Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code, by Amy Kiste Nyberg
Comic Book Nation, by Bradford Wright
Comic Books and American Cultural History, edited by Matthew Pustz