Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Secret Origins of the Superhero-Part Three

In contrast to superhero, superheroine, and superman, the word superwoman is, in its earliest use that I have found, positive. It remained mostly positive for years after that. That's a little surprising, but if I had to speculate on why the word superwoman was positive rather than negative, I would start with the realization that the evolution of popular culture in America and Britain coincided with the reign of Queen Victoria and her eponymous Age. There was a kind of sentimentality about the female sex then, but there was also a kind of power in women, not only in moral and civilizational terms but also in terms of marriage, the household, and the family. A man's sphere might be in the wider world of work, but at home, the woman reigned supreme. That's just theorizing. The actual evidence of the positive connotation of the word superwoman lies in nineteenth-century newspapers.

1856-The First Use of Superwoman

On February 22, 1856, a woman named Violet, living in Pewee Valley, Kentucky, screwed up her courage to write to the editors of the Louisville (Kentucky) Courier. It was her first to any newspaper editor. In their issue of February 27, the editors kindly printed it under the heading "A Letter from Pewee Valley" (p. 2). She wrote in part:
The day--the day on which I make this, my first epistolary attempt, imparts to my spirit a sort of super-woman strength and inspiration--the birthday of the glorious and immortal founder of our great republic. While I write, I hear the roar of the cannon in the direction of Louisville, saluting the spirit of the great defender of human rights and human liberty. What a multitude of reflections does the recurrence of this day suggest! [. . .] It is the day of all others fit to be held sacred to the Genius of Liberty, and it would seem on this occasion she had literally illustrated her power, in breaking the chains which hoary Old Winter has bound us [. . . .]
Superwoman is here used as an adjective--"super-woman strength and inspiration"--yet it approaches our idea of the powers possessed by our present-day superheroes. What's more, Violet felt inspired, in the original sense of the word, by the long-departed figure of George Washington. But did she also feel inspired by Liberty? It seems so. So was she like an antebellum Billy Batson who, by invoking the strength, convictions, and activity of George Washington and the power and genius of Liberty, took on the powers of a superwoman sufficient to do something she had never done before, that is, pen a letter to a newspaper editor? That might not be as farfetched as it sounds.

There is a similar use of superwoman in an article in The Inter Ocean of Chicago, dated April 7, 1877, under the heading "Woman's Kingdom" (p. 6). The author of the article, Elizabeth Boynton Harbert, quoted another writer, Grace Greenwood, in her praises of yet a third female journalist, Fanny Fern, who, in fourteen years with the New York Ledger, had never missed a deadline:
Think of what this fact proves--what habits of industry, what system, what thoughtfulness, what business integrity, what super-woman punctuality, and, O Minerva, Hygeia, what health!
Here again is the positive use of the descriptor superwoman and again the invocation of powerful figures from history or mythology.

This generally positive connotation of superwoman carried through in the few uses of the word I have found in the late nineteenth century, but after the 1890s--after Nietzsche--the Superwoman, like the Superman, was looked upon less positively than before. For example:

"Woman and Superwoman" by Montrose J. Moses from The Theatre, December 1904, page 319. The situation as described in the introduction to Moses' poem is suggestive of a dystopian future. And I think that the author looked upon the Superman and the Superwoman as Alfred Sutro later looked upon the superhero and superheroine of literature, for each pair, though strong, is loveless. What kind of tradeoff is that? And why have we made it, just as Moses and Sutro foresaw that we would?

Notice that instead of an adjective, superwoman came to be used as a noun as the nineteenth century progressed, and so we got closer to the actual figure of a Superwoman, which seems to have been just the distaff version of Nietzsche's Superman. Neither was universally admired or thought of as desirable. Regardless, George Bernard Shaw's play Man and Superman, from 1903, gave both enough traction that by the early 1900s, readers seem to have had a pretty clear idea of just what these new men and women were without having to be told. Some people apparently even wanted to be Supermen and Superwomen. (Remember the progressive affinity for eugenics.) An example:

An advertisement for To-Morrow Magazine, appearing in, of all places, the Blue-Grass Blade of Lexington, Kentucky, September 23, 1906, page 3. To-Morrow was a progressive journal, its writers and editor believing in a better, more rational world to come. As the small print says, the magazine was "[f]or the Superman and Superwoman and the New Civilization." Evidently there was no need for an explanation as to what those terms might mean. In any case, we have seen this combination of words--Superman and civilization--before, in Siegel and Shuster's story "The Reign of the Superman," printed in their fanzine Science Fiction: The Advance Guard of Future Civilization #3,  from January 1933. In other words, more than a quarter of a century had passed between To-Morrow and Siegel and Shuster's story, and yet people still believed at some level in the coming of the Nietzschian Superman and a utopian New World or New Civilization of the future. But then reality and the fallen nature of man intervened and we instead had the Nazis' Thousand Year Reich and the Bolsheviks' Workers' Paradise, both designed to bring about a glorious future civilization and both proving murderous and oppressive in the extreme.

The history of the word and concept of superwoman is really interesting and more complicated than I thought it would be. (You should see the newspapers of the 1910s and '20s.) A person could write a book about all of this. But I'm not here to write a book. Instead I'll move on to my last batch of super-words before returning to Weird Tales.

To be continued . . .

Happy Halloween from Tellers of Weird Tales!

Original text and captions copyright 2018 Terence E. Hanley

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