In the name of Wonder Woman, the first comic book super heroine, a group of women gathered at the Smithsonian Institution last night to talk about the invisibility and typecasting of women in American history. "We should remember all the great musicians who could only sing lullabies, all the great writers who could only write in diaries, all the great chiefs of staff who ran the P-TAs," said writer Gloria Steinem.
She shared the shadow of a George Washington exhibit at the National Museum of American History with nine other well-known women, discussing "Images of Women in American Culture," as part of the week designated by Congress as "Women's History Week." For the occasion, Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) resurrected her childhood Wonder Woman watch.
The symbol of the 40-year-old comic-book character raised a few eyebrows, as the guests viewed a two-case exhibit of drinking glasses, comic books and playing cards with the buxom heroine, as well as her costume from the recent television series. "Her outfit resembles a Playboy bunny, and she is always a young woman," said one guest.
Steinem, who adopted the Wonder Woman character for the first cover of Ms. magazine, admitted the symbolism was imperfect. "She was beautiful, wise and converted her enemies peacefully. It was the only place in Toledo where I could find respite from that invisibility." Last night's symposium was underwritten by Warner Communications, Inc., which owns D.C. Comics, Inc., both financiers of a just-announced fellowship for women over 40 years old called the Wonder Woman Foundation. Jean Firstenberg, director of the American Film Institute, said programs like the grants will help women define their own heroics.
The panel, moderated by Susan Stamberg, cohost of National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," was rapidly paced and varied. Quoting from aviatrix Amelia Earhart and teacher Helen Keller, Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R-Kan.) spoke of the courage of pioneer women. "It's important to have those roots so we can have wings to move on."
The movies and television have been less than perfect reflections of the real emotions of women. When movie critic Molly Haskell described a scene from a 1930s movie, "The Moon's Our Home," where Margaret Sullivan is forced to give up her acting career and put in a straitjacket by her husband Henry Fonda and looks at him lovingly, last night's audience hissed.
Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, the director of the Association of Black Women Historians, examined the black woman's image on television and found that "the character Nell from 'Gimme a Break' is an updated Mammy, and the 'Fame' character Lydia, nags, fusses, downs the students, just like the old Sapphire."
Though the predominately female audience of about 500 listened attentively, only mention of the Equal Rights Amendment brought sustained applause. Recalling the struggles of the woman who fought for temperance and voting rights, Rep. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), said, "It is still not funny that women have no place and no protection in the Constitution of the United States."
It was not only the typically white male historians, Steinem pointed out, who erased the heroics of women, but their own families as well. In recalling the story of her grandmother who was a political activist and feminist, Steinem said that she was spoken of as a woman who "raised four boys and set a nice kosher table."
While the panel struggled with their sense of loss, Carmen Delgado Votaw, co-chair of the National Women's Conference Committee, stressed the sins of omission. "If we are going to be white middle class, then we are not going to be what has made us great," said Votaw. Speaking of the contributions of minority and grass-roots women, she said, "We have something to offer and can enrich. Don't miss a chance to learn from what Arthur Schlesinger called the voices that no one expected to hear."