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The Secret Lives of Words column: Amazons, Wonder Woman, and the sleeping giantess

Rick LaFleur More Content Now USA TODAY NETWORK
Poster for “Wonder Woman 1984.” [Warner Bros. Pictures]

Columns share an author's personal perspective.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This is an update of a column first published in 2017.

Wonder Woman, the super hero(ine) of DC Comics fame, was conceived in the 1940s and has a mythic lineage dating back to antiquity. But Diana Prince, WW’s "civilian" alias, had never been the superstar of her own feature-length movie until the spring 2017. With Israeli army veteran, model, and actress Gal Gadot in the title role, the DC Extended Universe film "Wonder Woman" opened in theaters across the U.S. in the wake of controversies that had erupted over the #MeToo movement and other women’s issues during the Clinton-Trump presidential campaign.

On Jan. 21, 2017, the day after the presidential inauguration, hundreds of thousands of women converged on Washington D.C., to lobby for legislation aimed at advancing immigration and healthcare reform, women’s rights, and other fundamental human rights issues. More than 2.5 million people around the world joined the protest. With this massive event, and subsequent revival of lobbying for an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the U.S. Constitution, the "Wonder Woman" film premiere could not have been more suitably timed.

Flash forward four years, and we have a newly inaugurated president and Gal Gadot back in "Wonder Woman 1984," released to theaters and HBO Max this past December. The 2017 film, which grossed nearly a billion dollars at the box office worldwide, was set during WWI; the new 2½-hour sequel leaps forward to the Reagan-era 80s, with Wonder Woman’s love interest Steve Trevor, who had sacrificed himself at the end of the earlier movie, miraculously restored to life. USA TODAY reviewer Brian Truitt calls the reboot a "heartwarming flick full of grace, goodness and a tank-flipping, whip-smacking, baddie-bashing Gadot" - it hardly gets better than that.

The idea for Gadot’s character grew out of the women’s movement that had continued to gain force after adoption in 1920 of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote after a decades-long struggle. Inspired by leading feminists of the day, psychologist William Marston and his wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston, along with illustrator Harry Peter, created Wonder Woman and her basic story-line, drawing on the legendary Amazons of Greek mythology. Their Nazi-fighting heroine debuted in a December 1941, story in "All Star Comics #8" and appeared the next month on the cover of "Sensation Comics #1," both publications ultimately merged with DC.

As the Women’s Liberation Movement gathered momentum in the 60s and 70s, the leading lady of super-heroes graced the cover of the inaugural issue of Ms.magazine in 1972 and battled villains in made-for-television movies that aired in 1974 and 1975. Two TV series followed, both starring Lynda Carter. The first, which ran a single season on ABC, was set during the 1940s, like the DC comic. The second, "The New Adventures of Wonder Woman," had a contemporary 70s setting and aired for two seasons on CBS.

The show was dropped after 1979, which happened also to be the initial deadline for states to ratify the ERA. Efforts to pass the amendment, intended to guarantee women equal rights under the Constitution and first proposed to Congress in the 1920s, were vigorously renewed during the 70s but failed to garner sufficient votes for adoption and so, like Wonder Woman, faded into the background for a time.

Supporters of women’s rights did not give up, however, nor did Hollywood producers attuned to the shifting currents of American society. In 2016 the USPS issued a set of Wonder Woman stamps, the United Nations appointed the super-heroine as Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls, and the character made her powerful live-action debut on the big screen backing up two male DC champions in the film "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice."

Gal Gadot, reprising her role in that movie, took center stage in 2017’s "Wonder Woman" and now again in "Wonder Woman 1984," which is scheduled for release next month on DVD, Blue-Ray, and Digital HD from AMAZON (appropriately!) and iTunes. Another sequel, set in modern times, is now in the development stages. Endowed with extraordinary powers and "emotional intelligence," as Gadot has remarked, these latest WW incarnations draw from both her American feminist and ancient Amazonian roots.

The legend of the Amazons is best known to us from Greek epic and art. In one popular tale Penthesilea, daughter of the war god Ares, leads her Amazonian band to aid the Trojans, whose city has been besieged by the Greeks. In a moment of high drama, the Amazon queen and Achilles, greatest of the Greek heroes, meet in a duel on the plain outside Troy. Penthesilea fights mightily at first, but then is struck and falls to one knee. Determined to slay her, Achilles raises his sword and, at the very instant of plunging it into Penthesilea’s breast, their eyes meet and the Greek warrior is overwhelmed by the queen’s prowess and beauty - though too late to stay his weapon’s thrust.

Like so many legends, the Amazon story is grounded in historical fact. Aided by DNA findings, researchers have examined hundreds of ancient graves containing weapons and the remains of their battle-scarred owners, once assumed to be men but now proven to be female warriors. In her 2014 book, "The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World," Stanford University scholar Adrienne Mayor gathers evidence for the existence of nomadic hunter-warrior horsewomen of ancient Scythia, the vast territory stretching from the Black Sea to Mongolia. While the rigorously patriarchal Greeks wanted their women at home, and certainly not on the battlefield, they were familiar with cultures, on the fringes of their world, in which women fought alongside men or even independently.

U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Cali.) has been a vigorous activist in the effort to renew the fight for the ERA, and the House voted on Feb. 12, 2020, to remove the ratification deadline for the proposed amendment. In an interview for USA TODAY in 2017, Speier observed, "We have awakened a sleeping giantess." I’m reminded that in some versions of the Trojan War myth the tables are turned and Penthesilea slays Achilles, by driving a spear into the Greek warrior’s ever vulnerable heel. To paraphrase Helen Reddy’s ‘70s feminist anthem: Penthesilea’s Amazons, America’s suffragettes, and DC’s Diana Prince, they are women, hear them roar, they are too big to ignore … they are invincible.

Rick LaFleur is retired from 40 years of teaching Latin language and literature at the University of Georgia, which during his tenure came to have the largest Latin enrollment of all of the nation’s colleges and universities; his latest books are "The Secret Lives of Words,", a collection of nearly 60 of these essays, expanded with 250 color illustrations, and "Ubi Fera Sunt," a lively, lovingly wrought translation into classical Latin of Maurice Sendak’s classic, "Where the Wild Things Are," ranked first on TIME magazine’s 2015 list of the top 100 children’s books of all time. His Facebook group, "Doctor Illa Flora’s Latin in the Real World," numbers about 4,000 members.