Lonely Gods:
Social Minorities in American Superhero Comic Books

Return to Main Page

No Place For a Girl:

 

Batman Comics of the 1950s

Continued from the 1940s...
    Through the 1950s the stereotypical view of women as frail and less important than men continued. When Batman was not traveling into outer space or battling monsters, 1 he came across new characters such as Batwoman. Batwoman first appeared in 1956 in Detective Comics issue 233 as the woman Kathy Kane.
Kathy Kane and Bruce Wayne
Kathy Kane and Bruce Wayne. (Hey, that rhymes.)
Kane was a circus performer and motorcycle stunt rider who decided to follow in Batman's footsteps as a costumed crime fighter and began to intrude on his territory. Even though she ended up saving Batman's life twice during the story, she still conformed to feminine stereotypes of the era. Instead of a utility belt like Batman, Batwoman carried a "shoulder-bag utility-case" that was clearly a purse. 2 Additionally, her arsenal included feminine things such as a perfume bottle of tear gas, charm bracelet handcuffs, and makeup powder. 3 Even though Batwoman initially seems a strong character, she clearly was intended only to be a minor player always dominated by Batman. She was never meant to be an empowering character, as demonstrated by a section of the DC Comics Editorial Policy Code dealing with issues of sex. "The inclusion of females in stories is specifically discouraged. Women, when used in plot structure, should be secondary in importance, and should be drawn realistically, without exaggeration of feminine physical qualities." 4 Batman himself specifically discouraged Batwoman from helping him. In her first appearance, Batwoman arrived at a criminal hideout before Batman. "Might have known she'd dash into danger!" Batman remarked to himself.
No place for a girl
No place for a girl
Confronting Batwoman, Batman argued that she should immediately leave. "This is no place for a girl - please let me handle it!" 5

     While Batwoman may have been secondary in importance, she was aggressively promoted as a new rival and potential love interest for Batman. From February 1957 through November 1963 Batwoman appeared in the comics 34 times, sometimes appearing in the same series several months in a row. 6 Through all her appearances during the 1950s and 1960s Batwoman was always written as being weaker than Batman both physically and intellectually. In her second appearance in Batman issue 105, Kathy Kane dressed up as Batwoman to attend a masquerade, and discovered Robin about to capture the criminal Curt Briggs. Confronting Robin, Batwoman was immediately convinced that Briggs was really Batman, a supposition aided by Curt Briggs having amnesia. Robin played along, since the real Batman was disabled with a sprained ankle. "If Kathy saw Batman now and Bruce Wayne later - with a bad ankle - she'd be bound to suspect they're the same person!" Robin decided. 7 Not only did Batwoman consistently demonstrate faulty logic, but neither Batman nor Robin trusted a mere woman with their secret identities. Batwoman continued to make several blunders through this issue, going so far to take the false Batman to her own Batcave and teach him all her crime fighting techniques. 8
If only...
If only...
Briggs soon gained back his memory and decided to exploit Batwoman's error. "Batman and Robin must have some private reason for stringing Batwoman along this way," Briggs thought to himself, "So I'll pretend I've still got amnesia - and lead her and the kid right into a trap!" 9 After she walked into this trap and the real Batman arrived just in time to capture Briggs, Batwoman realized she was outclassed and decided to retire once more. "It was fun while it lasted." she sighed, putting her costume away. She later visited Bruce Wayne, stuck at home with his sprained ankle. When he quickly explained he sprained it while dancing, Kathy muttered, "I'll bet if Batman ever got an injury, it would be because he was doing something heroic! I wish you could be more like him, Bruce!" In response, Bruce Wayne only smiled towards the reader, amused that Kathy wasn't clever enough to discover the truth. 10

     Kathy Kane returned as Batwoman in Batman issue 116, commenting to Batman that "a lady has a right to change her mind" when he mentioned her previous retirement. 11 In this issue Kane did display some intelligence as she infiltrated a criminal enterprise in an elaborate disguise. The criminals, however, soon learned of her disguise and she was once more caught in a trap, forcing Batman to rescue her yet again.
Two for one
The double date
After the action subsided, Batman berated her for trying to help him fight crime. "Don't you know crime-fighting is too dangerous for a girl?" he asked. "Sometimes, I wish your secret identity would be exposed so you'd have to quit being Batwoman!" 12 The nuisance of Batwoman continued in Batman issue 119, when she and Vicki Vale took part in a contest to see who was more talented, the prize being a date with Batman. "Those jealous girls are sure to get themselves in trouble, trying to out-do each other," Robin commented as both women set out. 13 His words proved prophetic for both Vicki Vale and Batwoman were quickly captured by criminals, forcing Batman to rush in and save them. Undeterred, Vicki and Batwoman continued their contest, each hoping to capture the notorious gangster Moose Malloy. Both women ran into each other while infiltrating Malloy's hideout, and they were instantly captured once more. They did manage to help capture the criminal as Batman rescued them, and the contest was declared a tie. Accordingly, Batwoman and Vicki went on a double date with a bewildered Batman, while Robin commented from the sidelines: "Poor Batman! They won - but he lost!" 14

     Batwoman's status as an inferior woman was most clearly stated in the 1959 story "The Marriage of Batman and Batwoman". In this tale, Dick Grayson fell asleep and dreamed of a possible future where Bruce Wayne and Kathy Kane married. Soon after their marriage, Bruce Wayne told Kathy he was Batman in an attempt to stop her from interfering in their cases any longer. "Maybe now Kathy will realize Bruce doesn't want his wife to endanger her life, and she'll be content to be just a normal housewife," Robin thought to himself as he watched the scene. 15 This plan failed, and Kathy immediately tried to join Batman and Robin as they set out for their next adventure. "Now look, Kathy - one crime-fighter in the family is enough!"
You ruined his life!
You ruined his life!
Batman rebuked her attempt to help him. "A wife's place is in the home!" Kathy retorted: "A wife's place is with her husband!" 16 View Image Batman forcibly prevented Kathy from joining them as Batwoman by hiding her costume, and set out with Robin. Midway through their adventure, however, the duo were joined by Batwoman wearing one of Batman's costumes. As the three of them fought various criminals, Batwoman's cowl was torn away and revealed her secret identity to the world. Batwoman could only sob helplessly as the criminals immediately connected her to Bruce Wayne, who they quickly realized was Batman. "Kathy, do you know what you've done?" Robin shrieked. "You've wrecked Batman's career! He's finished, Kathy - and it's all your fault because you wouldn't listen!" 17

     Nearly all of Batwoman's adventures followed a similar pattern. She was always presented as being inferior to Batman, regardless of her own merits. When Batwoman displayed too much strength such as when she disobeyed an order from Batman, she was forced to stop being a superhero and return to her status as a normal, inferior woman. When she refused to do this and became Batwoman once more, the consequences were immediate and dire. Several times Batwoman was captured by criminals, and in Robin's dream from Batman 122, her disobedience ruined Batman's life. The only time where Batwoman actually captured criminals was when she directly aided Batman and fought by his side. Even then Batman and Robin both tried to prevent her from helping them, always reinforcing the point that she was a helpless woman who could easily be captured or killed.

     This view of women as being unimportant and inferior was not limited to just new characters like Batwoman, but also extended to the character Catwoman who had existed as a Batman villain since the early 1940s.
Catwoman's Remorse
Catwoman realizes she is a criminal
Even through Catwoman still made occasional appearances during this decade, she was no longer dangerous and at some points even resembled a damsel in distress. In a story from 1951 entitled "The Secret Life of the Catwoman", Batman rescued Catwoman after she was hit on the head by a falling brick. Back in the Batcave, the heroes learned Catwoman suffered from amnesia for many years and was actually an airline stewardess. 18 The accident having restored her memory, Catwoman decided she no longer wanted to be a criminal and worked as an undercover agent for Batman. Once the adventure concluded Catwoman quit, saying: "That's that! From now on, I'm plain Selina Kyle! The Catwoman has retired!". 19 Even though she previously acted as a strong female character, Catwoman gave up her dominant role and decided to be just a normal woman who no longer faced off against Batman. After 1954 Catwoman completely disappeared from the comics to make way for more feminine characters like Batwoman, and did not reappear for thirteen years.

     The presentations of Batwoman and Catwoman kept with the traditional idea that women should stay at home in order to be wives, even through this idea began to change during the 1950s. After World War II many women lost the jobs they took over for the absent men, and some of these women began to reenter the workforce during the late 1940s, continuing into the 1950s. "By 1952, 10.4 million wives had jobs, 2 million more than at the peak of World War II." 20 Although more married women worked than before, public attitudes still prevailed that a wife should stay at home and raise a family, instead of working, or in Catwoman's case, becoming a dominant villain. During this period, the idea of a strong, self-sufficient woman became almost abhorrent, and the term "feminism" was treated like a dirty word, with many female organizations such as the National League of Women Voters making efforts to distance themselves from that ideology. 21 This public view of women as second class citizens remained unchanged in the Batman comics until well into the next decade.

Continue to the 1960s...
Notes: