Wonder Women of History

What do does Wonder Woman, Florence Nightingale and Rachel McAdams have in common?

My visual culture module this term is super interesting; public health campaigns and medical knowledge depicted in various mediums – films, comics, even stamps. This week’s task was a 2 minute presentation on a more recent campaign or method; I chose comic books because it gave me an excuse to scroll through Pinterest for a couple of hours. Seriously, Pinterest is a great source for this module.

The first quick search I did was ‘Nurses in comics’ because I was binge watching Call the Midwife (again) at the same time and came across this amazing comic illustration of Florence Nightingale. The comic was 4 pages long and details the entire story of Nightingale’s life in an inviting and aesthetically pleasing way.

florence nightingale

The title was “Wonder Women of History, told by Alice Marble.” Alice Marble is a famous American tennis player who on retirement became an associate editor for Sensation Comics. Inspired by the Wonder Woman comics which began in 1941 Marble ran the original comic from 1942 – 1954 and each week was dedicated to another “Wonder Woman of History.”

Marble realised the impact that comic books had on the youth, outlining in a letter to the Bureau of Internal Revenue that fifteen million comics were bought each month and that there was opportunity to develop the superhero genre into an educational benefit. During this time there was a significant divide and hesitation in mixing the mediums of education and entertainment; the glamour of Hollywood for example was prioritised over reality.  Marble recognised the positive aspects of the Wonder Woman comic stating “Wonder Woman marks the first time that daring strength and imagination have been featured as those womanly qualities. This has a lasting effect upon the minds.”

While not exclusively connected to any public health campaigns or strictly based on medicine, the first three ‘Wonder Women’ were nurses, specifically nurses within wars. The first comic was Florence Nightingale, the second Clara Barton ‘The Angel of the Battlefield’ and the creator of the Red Cross and the third, Edith Cavell.

It is not confirmed, yet I have a theory that the later Marvel series of “Night Nurse” takes inspiration from the successful “Wonder Women of History” series. Beginning in the 1970s, the series depicts three nurses, Christine Palmer, Georgia Jenkins and coincidently Linda Carter. (Although the Wonder Woman series starring Lynda Carter emerged 3 years later.)

The three nurses were depicted as having superhero powers (rightly so because nurses are real life superheroes) and being the ones to tend to injured superheroes. This echoes the lives of Nightingale, Barton and Cavell who tended to war heroes.

night nurse

Yet issues with “Night Nurse” are obvious. While a commendable effort in depicting nurses as Wonder Women, cultural stereotypes were still attached; the sexualised nature and ‘ditzy’ persona. There is evidence which implies this may be a reason for the series end. Young girls were more attracted to new mediums outside of comic books, such as more serious and realistic novella series such as Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames. With this in mind Marble’s original teaming of reality and the superhero genre appears to have reverted.

The characters of Night Nurse have popped up in more recent Marvel films; Rachel McAdams portraying Christine Palmer, this time as a surgeon, in Doctor Strange (2016) The occupational shift from nurse to doctor may be a topic of further research in the superhero genre – are comic books still fixed to nurse stereotypes? Yet the character development may be conceived as a step forward – or be applied to other campaigns such as the “Women in Science” – encouraging girls to enter into scientific areas and change stereotypes of what is considered ‘gendered.’ In a way this adds a new dimension to Marble’s original Wonder Women campaign, as an empowerment.


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