On Decem­ber 25th, many Jews will observe their annu­al movie-going rit­u­al with Won­der Woman 1984, whose Christ­mas Day pre­miere is set to take place simul­ta­ne­ous­ly in the­aters and on HBO Max. Long thought to be the rare com­ic book super­hero with­out a Jew­ish cre­ation myth, Won­der Woman, as it turns out, can trace her roots to the work of Miri­am Michel­son, a Jew­ish Amer­i­can writer and suf­frag­ist who har­nessed the pow­er of pop­u­lar cul­ture in the ear­ly twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry fight for women’s rights.

The char­ac­ter of Won­der Woman, who debuted in 1941 in All Star Comics #8, was the cre­ation of an eccen­tric man, William Moul­ton Marston (who pub­lished the com­ic under a pen name, Charles Moul­ton). But her ori­gins, as Jill Lep­ore has shown in The Secret His­to­ry of Won­der Woman, lie in the suf­frage move­ment. Par­adise Island, the civ­i­liza­tion of Ama­zon­ian war­riors to which Won­der Woman belongs, was inspired by tropes of fem­i­nist utopi­an fic­tion; this genre reached its zenith in the decades lead­ing up to the pas­sage of the 19th Amend­ment in 1920.

Miri­am Michel­son, cour­tesy of the author

In 1912, Michel­son, a best­selling author of pop­u­lar fic­tion, pub­lished The Super­woman, a fem­i­nist fan­ta­sy nar­ra­tive about a matri­lin­eal island soci­ety in which women rule by moth­er right.” Like many of the suf­frage activists who took to the streets and took up pens, Michel­son was a real-life Won­der Woman. Born in 1870 in Cal­i­for­nia to Jew­ish Pol­ish immi­grants, Michel­son became a celebri­ty reporter in the 1890s, break­ing gen­der bar­ri­ers in the news­room as one of the first women to cov­er crime, pol­i­tics, and sports for San Francisco’s top dai­ly newspapers.

By the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, she had achieved nation­al fame as a nov­el­ist, a voca­tion that proved more lucra­tive than jour­nal­ism for a sin­gle, inde­pen­dent woman sup­port­ing her­self and mem­bers of her large extend­ed fam­i­ly. Her celebri­ty as a nov­el­ist and trail­blaz­ing jour­nal­ist gave her a pub­lic plat­form, which she sub­se­quent­ly used to cham­pi­on a vari­ety of pro­gres­sive caus­es — includ­ing suffrage.

When Michel­son wrote The Super­woman, she was fresh off a speak­ing tour for the suc­cess­ful suf­frage cam­paign that won women in Cal­i­for­nia the right to vote in 1911. Appear­ing as the lead novel­la in the pop­u­lar mag­a­zine The Smart Set, this fem­i­nist utopi­an nar­ra­tive is, in part, a cel­e­bra­tion of women’s new­ly acquired polit­i­cal pow­er. As a work of spec­u­la­tive fic­tion, it can also be seen as a call to action, a reminder that women’s bat­tles for equal rights were far from over.

The story’s pro­tag­o­nist, Hugh Ellinwood Wel­burn, is an insuf­fer­ably arro­gant bach­e­lor. We first meet him on an ocean-lin­er where he is choos­ing which female pas­sen­ger it will be most advan­ta­geous to mar­ry — a deci­sion he plans to final­ize by flip­ping a coin. Point­ed­ly referred to by his ini­tials, H.E. is a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Gild­ed Age patri­ar­chal society.

By the end of the novella’s first chap­ter, Wel­burn is swept over­board by a storm. He awakes on a remote, unnamed island; his life has been saved by one of its pow­er­ful female inhab­i­tants. This scene is echoed on the first page of Won­der Woman’s com­ic book debut, when a beau­ti­ful fig­ure” res­cues Steve Trevor after his plane crash­es on Par­adise Island, set­ting in motion her trans­for­ma­tion into Won­der Woman.

Like many of the suf­frage activists who took to the streets and took up pens, Michel­son was a real-life Won­der Woman.

The arrival of a man has no such trans­for­ma­tive effect on Michelson’s super­women, who view their island’s male pop­u­la­tion as sec­ond-class cit­i­zens, tol­er­at­ed because they serve repro­duc­tive and domes­tic func­tions. Instead, the women intend to trans­form Wel­burn, accli­mat­ing him to the new land by school­ing him in their tongue and in the ways of the matri­ar­chate.” In the world of The Super­woman, not only are tra­di­tion­al gen­der roles flipped, but women are revered for their wis­dom, their phys­i­cal strength, and their mater­ni­ty. The birth of a girl, for exam­ple, occa­sions com­mu­ni­ty-wide jubi­la­tion. Wel­burn learns of the social norm of polyandry when the super­woman who choos­es him as her mate plans to take anoth­er husband.

Welburn’s tales of his home in Amer­i­ca are met with mock­ing dis­be­lief. Would you pre­tend that in your top­sy-turvy coun­try descent is through the father? Does the man there bear the child?” asks the Moth­er God­dess when Wel­burn dares to sug­gest that the daugh­ter he fathered should car­ry his name. The Moth­er God­dess laughed hearti­ly” at the absur­di­ty of the idea, while the women about her gave way to immod­er­ate laugh­ter.” Through humor, Michel­son expos­es the illog­ic of patri­archy. The Super­woman reads more as an adven­ture tale than a polemic, thanks to Michelson’s skill at cloak­ing her fem­i­nist mes­sage in com­e­dy and genre fiction.

Won­der Wom­an’s debut in All Star Comics #8 (Decem­ber 1941-Jan­u­ary 1942)

Michelson’s first nov­el, In the Bishop’s Car­riage, intro­duced a new type of hero for the picaresque (a genre of fic­tion that typ­i­cal­ly fol­lows the episod­ic adven­tures of a low-born male pro­tag­o­nist). With a female pick­pock­et as its unlike­ly but appeal­ing first-per­son pro­tag­o­nist, Michelson’s debut nov­el became a scan­dalous sen­sa­tion when it appeared in 1904. The hero­ine, Nance Old­en, was a pro­to­type for the flap­per and a fix­ture of pop­u­lar cul­ture for well over a decade, as the nov­el was adapt­ed into a play and two films. The first film, which was released in 1913, starred silent film star Mary Pick­ford in her fea­ture debut as the girl thief.” By cast­ing a woman as a rogue, a role pre­vi­ous­ly reserved for men in fic­tion, Michel­son hit on a for­mu­la for plea­sur­ably divert­ing her audi­ence while explor­ing women’s expand­ing role in the polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic life of the nation.

At a time when women were loud­ly demand­ing the vote, Michelson’s fic­tion gave mod­ern women a voice — one that was sassy, slangy, and (in the words of a book review­er) as “‘catchy’ as rag­time.” A Yel­low Jour­nal­ist, a series of sto­ries that Michel­son pub­lished in The Sat­ur­day Evening Post in 1905, was loose­ly based on the author’s own jour­nal­is­tic exploits. Fea­tur­ing a fear­less girl reporter” named Rho­da Massey, Michelson’s breezy, fast-paced prose cap­tures the expe­ri­ences of an ambi­tious woman in a male-dom­i­nat­ed pro­fes­sion. Imag­ine Super­man with Lois Lane’s boyfriend rel­e­gat­ed to the side­lines, and Lois’s adven­tures as a reporter tak­ing cen­ter stage.

In 1972, recall­ing her child­hood encoun­ters with the Won­der Woman comics, Glo­ria Steinem rec­og­nized the pow­er of pop­u­lar cul­ture to bring about social change. She described how her qualms about the com­ic books’ con­tra­dic­tions and incon­sis­tences — from the superheroine’s over­ly sex­u­al­ized get-up, to alter ego Diana Prince’s sub­mis­sive­ness towards her con­ven­tion­al love inter­est — paled beside the relief, the sweet vengeance, the toe-wrig­gling plea­sure of … a woman who was strong, beau­ti­ful, coura­geous, and a fight­er for social jus­tice.” Watch­ing Israeli actor Gal Gadot bring Won­der Woman to life on the screen is like­ly to elic­it sim­i­lar mixed feel­ings from fem­i­nist view­ers. The plea­sures, how­ev­er, may be fur­ther enhanced by knowl­edge of real-life social jus­tice war­riors like Michel­son who embraced pop fem­i­nism as a tool in the ongo­ing bat­tle for gen­der equality.

Lori Har­ri­­son-Kahan is the edi­tor of The Super­woman and Oth­er Writ­ings by Miri­am Michel­son and co-edi­tor of a new edi­tion of Heirs of Yes­ter­day by Emma Wolf. She is also the author of The White Negress: Lit­er­a­ture, Min­strel­sy, and the Black-Jew­­ish Imag­i­nary and an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of the prac­tice of Eng­lish at Boston College.