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Gwen D’Arcangelis
on 1970s Feminism in Wimmen’s Comix

Gwen D’Arcangelis
Associate Professor of Gender Studies
Skidmore College

I began reading comics in the early 2000s, when I discovered the feminist, queer-centric Dykes to Watch Out For. Other feminist-inspired comics followed: Fray, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Y: The Last Man. Recently, I discovered another comic: the Tang Teaching Museum acquired issues 5, 6, and 7 (1975–1976) of Wimmen’s Comix. The series, birthed in the San Francisco Bay Area during the 1970s women’s lib era, produced seventeen issues in its twenty-year run. Intrigued, I wanted to learn more.

In the introduction to a two-book anthology of the series, cofounder Trina Robbins briefly chronicled its genesis.(1) She described the male-dominated, sexist underground comics scene and how this inspired the creation of an all-women-authored series. Her narrative was accompanied by photos of the collective: they wore 1970s garb and the one man pictured (the publisher) sported a long, untamed beard. All of this triggered my nostalgia for an era I imagined to be wonderfully radical and experimental.

But I noticed something else as well: all eight members pictured were white. This observation kicked in a different type of sentiment—wariness. I was well aware of the particular gaps surrounding race in US feminism in the 1970s. I wondered: were any of the members women of color and, further, how was race portrayed in the comic? The seventeen issues offer a diversity of topics and a range of tones and visual approaches.

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Wimmen's Comix, issue 5 (International), 1975
staple-bound comic book
Acquisition made possible through a gift of the Steven Leiber Trust (Mitchell Leiber, David Leiber, Elen Markopoulos, Paul Leiber, and Eleanor Cutler)

Issue 5 contains a story boldly titled “Doin’ It!” Young kids, upon seeing heterosexual kissing scenes on TV, decide to try it. They move from kissing to touching each other’s genitals. Soon after, an older woman enters the room and puts a stop to their exploration. She employs the language of “hurt” to cinch her lesson that this is bad behavior. But once left alone again, the kids start right back up and discover that kissing and touching far from “hurts”; instead, it is pleasurable.

As a critique of conservatism, the story epitomizes the era’s sex positivity. In parenting, this meant acceptance and normalization of sexual desires rather than stigmatization and suppression. Nineteen-seventies feminism further asserted that mainstream US culture’s shame about sex was tied to its control of women’s sexual expression. I appreciated this particular insight, as my own teenage years were spent under Reagan’s repressive moral regime as well as in the puritanical sexual culture of New England. Heteronormative monogamy, prizing virginity, and what we today call “slut-shaming” were deeply entrenched.

The next story that caught my eye confirmed my worst fears about the racial gaps of 1970s-era feminism. This story, titled “Tiger Lily of Saigon,” was also sexually provocative, focusing on a Vietnamese woman and a white man in the throes of passionate sex. The setting was the Vietnam war, and the story reproduced the white man’s gaze: the white man’s lines to the Vietnamese woman included “sexy bitch” and descriptions of her “lotus-soft body,” among other Orientalizing, sexist images. I was also disappointed that the story offered no clear anti-war or anti-imperial stance. Instead, it portrayed the tragedy of the war in terms of barriers to the couple’s love—he was a US soldier and she was a night club singer who eventually died in the war. The story ends with him, years later in the United States and married, reminiscing about “Tiger Lily.” The story was a disturbing reminder of the derogatory ideas the war produced about Asian and Asian American women, who continue to be objectified to this day.

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Wimmen's Comix, issue 6 (Special Bicentennial Issue), 1976
staple-bound comic book
Acquisition made possible through a gift of the Steven Leiber Trust (Mitchell Leiber, David Leiber, Elen Markopoulos, Paul Leiber, and Eleanor Cutler)
Issue 6 is titled “Special Bicentennial Issue.” I am always skeptical of US nationalism, and I wondered whether the issue would challenge the rewriting of Native American genocide present in most US histories. But in this issue, I found two stories, one on Harriet Tubman, the other on Pocahontas. There was much for me to love in both stories. The Pocahontas story was an unabashed critique of white supremacy and imperialism, as Pocahontas calls Captain Smith a “pale-faced turkey” and a “dirty old misogynist.” The Tubman story was celebratory and depicted her standing tall, towering over her audience, breaking chains and tugging the Underground Railroad. I especially appreciated how it foregrounded her strength and power in fighting against injustice—in the various frames she speaks, totes a gun, and heals the wounded. Moreover, the visuals highlight not just her powerful actions, but also her emotions—her anger, her tears, her loving embrace of family.
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Wimmen's Comix, issue 7 (Outlaws), 1976
staple-bound comic book
Acquisition made possible through a gift of the Steven Leiber Trust (Mitchell Leiber, David Leiber, Elen Markopoulos, Paul Leiber, and Eleanor Cutler)

Issue 7, titled “Outlaws,” touches on another minefield of 1970s feminism—the portrayal of sexual orientation and gender identity. I knew that in this era many straight feminists had marginalized lesbians and queer women, just as they had women of color. I wondered how the comic would portray queer women. The issue focuses on a wide range of women whom the authors considered outlaws: women of color in “Petite Morte,” lesbians in “Pirates,” and sex workers in “Strangers in the Night.” While the story focused on women of color treated them as Other—as murderous and oversexed—the story on sex workers centered their perspectives, particularly their critiques of sexual mores and respectability norms. “Pirates,” which depicts a butch-femme pair of female pirates with an active sex life, falls somewhere in between these two poles. Portraying queer women in explicit sexual acts certainly has a long and sordid history in the regime of the male gaze. However, the two queer women in this story disrupt heteronormative patriarchy by taking ownership of their gendered sexual expression—as butch and femme.

In my gender studies classes, I teach students to avoid approaching earlier eras of feminism as reified antiquities from which our contemporary feminisms drastically depart. Accordingly, my perusal of these three issues of Wimmen’s Comix reminded me of the diversity of 1970s-era feminism and its echoes in present-day clashes among feminists. There was much I resonated with—the sex-positive themes, the portrayals of strong women of color and defiant queer women. In turn, I rejected the narratives that dehumanized women of color, even if they were informative in providing a glimpse into long-standing discourse about US women of color. I am reminded of bell hooks’s insight in her essay “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators” that critical consumers of media can find pleasure even in narratives that reproduce their negation: “pleasure in a context in which looking was also about contestation and confrontation.”(2) This comic provides the opportunity for more than one enactment of pleasure: of looking, of relating, but also of interrogation, of deconstruction.

Cite this page

D’Arcangelis, Gwen. “Gwen D’Arcangelis on 1970s Feminism in Wimmen’s Comix.” Tang Teaching Museum collections website. First published in Accelerate: Access & Inclusion at The Tang Teaching Museum 3 (2019).
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