Many men felt threatened by second wave feminism—including some of America’s most successful comic book creators. Guest blogger Sydney Heifler explains how 1970s romance comic books became a vehicle for anti-feminist propaganda.
In March 1971, the Marvel romance comic My Love featured a story by Stan Lee entitled “No Man is My Master”. The central character is a young woman named Bev, who goes out on a date with Nick. Nick makes fun of Bev, orders her food for her, and won’t even call her by her name. At the end of the date, when she asks him if he treats all women like this, he tells her that “chicks are weak little creatures… and that’s the way I like it.”
Initially Bev accepts this, but after a girlfriend takes her to a Female Freedom Rally where the speaker declares that women “must be equal to men in every way”, she decides she’s had enough. In future she will date only “gentle” men who treat her as an equal. But she finds she doesn’t enjoy these dates. She can’t decide where she wants to go, and when a man asks permission to kiss her she becomes angry with him. Bev is confused: “I’ve got my freedom… No man can push me around… So what’s the big deal?”
Her question is answered at another Female Freedom meeting, where a speech urging women to demand equal wages and benefits convinces Bev she’s made a mistake: “Female Freedom isn’t about dates—or romance! It’s for job equality—and things like that!” She stops dating “nice” men and waits for Nick to contact her. The story ends with Nick telling her “Me Tarzan, you Jane!”—to which Bev responds, “And that’s the way it was meant to be!”
During the 1970s, many popular romance comic books produced by major imprints like Marvel responded to the growing visibility of second wave feminism by regularly publishing stories about—to use their own term—“Women’s Lib”. Invariably written by men, these stories presented the new feminist movement as a threat. Often they adopted the position taken in “No Man is My Master”, expressing support for moderate forms of ‘equality feminism’ while associating the more radical Women’s Liberation Movement with misguided and dangerous extremism. Women who acted on the insight that “the personal is political” by demanding equality in the home, or in romantic relationships with men, would soon discover that “liberation” did not bring happiness.
That was the moral of “Bride and Broom,” written by Jack Oleck in 1971 for the romance comic book Young Love. It begins with the heroine, a young wife, wondering how the romance of “bride and groom” had turned so quickly into the drudgery of “bride and broom”. Dissatisfied with her domestic role, she participates in a Women’s Liberation march where a cop arrests her for blocking traffic. The cop mocks the movement, saying that women don’t know when they’re well off: she has a husband, what more can she want?
As she sits in jail pondering the injustice of women’s situation, she becomes increasingly angry and emotional; she is still angry when she learns that the cop has paid her bail. He says he’s been feeling guilty, and she lets him take her out for coffee. As they talk, he promises to try to learn about feminism, but she has to be “quiet” and not make any more “waves”. This conversation makes her feel calmer: “Suddenly, I wasn’t mad anymore. We women—we’re such softies.” She goes home to cook dinner for her husband, who turns out to be none other than the cop. The story ends with her addressing the reader:
How could I be angry? Sure he was a man, and he had a lot of old-fashioned notions, but he loves me.
Other Women’s Lib stories focused on “career girls” rather than frustrated housewives. In “Call Me Ms”, which appeared in Love and Romance in 1975, we meet Miss Robins, an ambitious feminist who refuses to let love get in the way of her career in advertising. One day, she objects to being ogled by a new client. He tells her he hasn’t come to “hassle with a chick who happens to have nice legs!”, and that if she doesn’t believe women should be attractive for men, he won’t let her work on the lip cream campaign. After she agrees to his terms, he apologizes for his behaviour, but adds that “Any girl who looks like you should expect men to admire them!” His words have an immediate effect: “He really likes me”, she muses; ‘I wonder if he’s married or engaged or anything…” By the end of the story he is engaged—to Miss Robins, who vows that marriage will always come before her career.
These stories continued a long tradition of using romance comic books to teach women about their roles and responsibilities. During World War II, when comic books came under the influence of the US government via the Writers’ War Board, there were many stories of women finding true love when they went out to work to help the war effort (while those who did not join the workforce were unlucky in love). Towards the end of the war, the message was reversed: women who stayed at home found true love and happiness, while those who insisted on independence led miserable lives.
This message hardly changed during the 1950s and 1960s. Plotlines focused on marriage and the importance of finding a husband. Sexual relations were also touched on—women were only supposed to have sex once married. There was particular concern about teenage girls, who were gaining more independence through a booming youth culture. Romance comic books warned that their lives would be ruined if they kissed too freely or married too young. They also made clear that working outside the home was only acceptable for a young woman waiting to find a husband or a young wife waiting to have a child. Women who tried to pursue careers either saw the error of their ways and got married by the end of the story, or else they came to understand that they were doomed to a life of loneliness.
In the 1960s feminists began to challenge this view of women’s role, and stories like the ones described above were the comic book industry’s response. This wasn’t just an insignificant fringe movement: Women’s Lib stories were written by famous comic book creators like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, they were produced by leading publishers like Marvel and Charlton, and they were read by large numbers of young women.
Today these stories have been largely forgotten: they are rarely discussed by historians of comic books, and when they do receive attention it is often very uncritical, downplaying or denying their anti-feminism. This may be, in part, because so much comic book analysis has been produced by fans, who are reluctant to criticize revered figures like Lee and Kirby. But academics have also portrayed the Women’s Lib stories of the 1970s as good-faith attempts by sympathetic male authors to come to terms with the new feminist movement.
That wasn’t how they were seen by actual feminists at the time. In 1971, the women of the Liberation News Service reprinted and responded to “No Man is My Master!” through the counterculture newspaper the Berkeley Barb. “Comics”, they observed, “are becoming increasingly political. We’re reprinting ‘No Man Is My Master’ not because it’s so unusual but because it is a good example of what Marvel Comics is up to”.
To contemporary feminist commentators it was clear that what the industry was up to was not supporting Women’s Liberation, but on the contrary, trying to undermine it. This anti-feminism should be acknowledged as part of comic book history—something to be critically analysed, not erased and put aside.