American Wonder Women: Real Life Superheroines and Heroic Women

by Roxanna “Roxie” Kelley.  

As a comic-book geek, it never escaped my notice that the majority of heroes in them were male. And the women, well, they were usually relegated to the role of “damsel in distress” or were heroines in their own right, but were scantily clad, because perhaps the prospect of a nip-slip would freeze those bad guys in their tracks! It was every man’s dream: to be pursued and to have his ass kicked by a scantily clad female with a whip or lasso handy. And that was the point: it was a man’s dream. Wonder Woman and the Bionic Woman were just two of the few heroic women girls were ever exposed to prior to the 1990’s. Before them, who was there? A lot of Heroic Women!

Wonder Woman Logo

Read on…

August 18, 1920 is the day the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified. That amendment recognized the right of all American women to vote. The legislation was drafted in 1878, but it took more than 40 years to finally pass. Prior to that, only women in the states of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Washington, California, Arizona, Kansas, Oregon, Montana, Nevada, New York, Michigan, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Alaska (a territory at the time) were allowed full voting rights because those states (and territory) recognized that the Constitution protected the rights of all people, not just men. Some additional states allowed women limited voting rights prior to the amendment’s passage, but a whopping 21 states had to be forced under the amendment to recognize any right to vote for women.

Did you know that the U.S. Government recognized the right of blacks to vote long before it did the right of women to do the same? Black males had their right to vote recognized by the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870.

It was the work and sacrifices of real life superheorines such as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, Antoinette Brown Blackwell, Amelia Bloomer, Lucy Burns, Elisabeth Freeman, Matilda Joslyn Gage, Julia Ward Howe, Mary Livermore, Abbey Kelley, Inez Milholland, Lucretia Mott, Alice Paul, Anna Howard Shaw, Doris Stevens, Mabel Vernon, Ida B. Wells, Frances Willard, Victoria Woodhull, and Rosalie Gardiner Jones who ensured that women of today could have a voice in the shaping of the country and thereby their own future. Some of these women were jailed and tortured simply because they wanted women to have the right to vote.  The popular 1970’s Schoolhouse Rock even created an educational short film for kids about the topic of the 19th Amendment and Women’s Suffrage and the heroic women of that movement.

Schoolhouse Rock: Sufferin’ ’til Suffrage from BExceptional on Vimeo.

Other women have also played a heroic role in America’s history. Take, for example, Martha McFarlane McGee Bell. Her courage and strength during the Revolutionary War earned her heroine status. Among her other courageous acts, she was able to feed valuable intel about British Troops to American revolutionaries. On to more Heroic Women …

During the Civil War, freed slave Mary Elizabeth Bowser worked with an abolitionist, her former owner’s wife (who freed her upon his death) to aid the cause. Under the guise of being an illiterate slave, she was able to work in the home of Jefferson Davis, where all would speak openly in front of her. She then passed this intel on to Union informers. Her courage and dedication to fighting to free all slaves is nothing short of heroic.

As a child, I owned a book about Deborah Sampson and it was her story that first educated me on the choices I had as a female; that I could follow my heart and fight for whatever I believed in. Deborah Sampson’s story is a bit like Disney’s Mulan. She disguised herself as a man in order to fight in the Revolutionary War. When wounded, she was found out by the doctor, who actually kept her secret safe. She returned to duty when she was healed and later received an honorable discharge. Her name as a soldier was Robert Shurtleff.

And, speaking of woman warriors, Martha McSally not only flew in combat but commanded a USAF fighter squadron. Both were firsts. She achieved the rank of colonel before retiring. Talk about Heroic Women !

But warriors and “spies” aren’t the only heroic roles women have played in American history. Elizabeth Blackwell was the first “openly identified” female graduate of medical school (Geneva Medical College, New York) in the United States. Coincidentally, the very next year the country’s first medical college for women opened. Pennsylvania was home to that college: The Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania.

Real life wonder women are all around us and most never get the credit or recognition they so richly deserve. A 2012 SXSW film by Kristy Guevara-Flanagan titled Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines explores the history of American Wonder Women: both fictional and real.  Reviews of the film laud the film’s look at the true strength of women and the real wonder women of America.

WONDER WOMEN! The Untold Story of American Superheroines from Vaquera Films on Vimeo.

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