Jennie Leland

Date of Award


Level of Access Assigned by Author

Campus-Only Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)




Nathan Godfried

Second Committee Member

Elizabeth McKillen

Third Committee Member

Scott W. See


In this thesis, I will examine popular culture, particularly comic books, not as either/or products of American society, but as both socially relevant and economically dependent. Comic books have always answered to the economic pressures of the industry yet still demonstrate a keen insight into the political and social conflicts of the world around them, making themselves relevant to their audience. This thesis focuses on superheroines in comic book history beginning with Wonder Woman in 1941 and ending with Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 2003. By examining women's economic, social, and political spheres from World War II through the beginning of the twenty-first century, this thesis will look at how superheroines both imitate and influence different stages of women's history as well as their representation of the agendas of feminist (and in some cases anti-feminist) organizations. This thesis has relied primarily on secondary resources from noted comic book and women's historians. Comic books provide the bulk of primary resources used for literary and historical analysis as well as either refutation or reinforcement of arguments made by comic book scholars. The thesis discerned three distinct patterns the author noticed in the powers and abilities of superheroines in comic books. The first of these, lasting from 1941 to the late 1950s ("the cousin syndrome"), emphasizes superheroines as extensions (sister, wife, girlfriend, cousin) of already established male superheroes. The only possible exception is Wonder Woman, though even her creator intended her to be in the likeness of Superman. The second of these patterns ("the Earth Mother syndrome") emerged in the early 1960s and lasted through the end of the 1970s. It demonstrates that superheroines of this time period possessed abilities that were somehow connected to the Earth and Nature. The third of these patterns ("the father figure syndrome" from the early 1980s to the beginning of the twenty-first century) reveals several newly created superheroines who rely on fathers or father figures for guidance. Noticing such distinctions led to such questions as why did these patterns would exist and did these "syndromes" bore any relevance to the conditions of women in social, familial, political, and economic settings. The first two chapters address "the cousin syndrome," placing the roles of superheroines in the context of first World War II, then the return to home after the men's return and finally the conditions of the 1950s suburban housewife. Chapters three and four examine "the Earth Mother syndrome" in conjunction with civil rights, second-wave feminists, and the emergence of the environmentalist movement. The final chapters explores "the father figure syndrome" in the framework of the Superwoman myth, the backlash against feminism, and "the third-wave." The thesis concludes that superheroines, like their male counterparts, provide keen insight into the political and social conflicts of the world around them, yet are also uniquely suited to demonstrating the conflicts and contradictions in women's history.