Unless you've been living under a rock, you're likely well aware that this weekend, Wonder Woman — a film about an Amazonian superhero — busted box office records. But while the movie is new, Wonder Woman has been around for almost a century — and the Amazons themselves, the mythical all-female warrior troupe of huge ferocity and skill, have been a cultural force for thousands of years. Their legend has run from origins among the Scythian warriors of the steppes through Greek myth to the modern world. And when people throughout the history of Western popular culture have wanted to find a reference for strong, self-willed women who declare themselves independent of men, the Amazons are the ones they've turned to.
But to be called an Amazon hasn't always been considered a charming thing. The "Amazons of Dahomey," for instance, were the infamously lethal female warriors of what is now called Benin in Africa, who received their label in the 19th century from astonished French colonial occupiers. Though the name referenced the fact that the women were brilliant warriors, it also referenced that the Amazons were considered "exotic" and "other" — so the name wasn't exactly a compliment. As ideals of women's strength have changed, so has the West's cultural treatment of the idea of the Amazon.
Medieval Europeans Thought Amazons Were Monstrous...But Important!
Medieval European world maps often depicted Amazons among the many monstrous, weird races outside the "realms of Christendom" — along with species of griffin, mouthless men, and giant-footed dudes who could shelter themselves from the sun under their prodigious shoes. Legend and reality collided when it came to little-explored parts of the world, and the Amazons were considered just as bizarre as, say, men with dog's heads.
But things were beginning to change. Medieval female warriors like Joan of Arc were entering the history books and art, and parallels with Amazons were pretty obvious (both Joan and Amazons would be shown in full armor but also long flowing hair, to emphasize their femininity). And one of the most formidable literary creations of the medieval period, the Book Of The City Of Ladies by Christine de Pizan, uses the stories of the Amazons as one of the founding narratives of her "female citadel," to prove the worth and value of women in society.
In The 1700s, Amazons Were A Symbol For Women Who Wrote Or Rode Horses
In the 1700s, Amazons were called upon for two symbolic reasons, both tied to early feminism — but one of them wasn't complimentary. With the rise of greater literacy across Europe and the printing press, women were making a big splash in the writing world, particularly when defending their own rights. And some people were not having it. "In former times," the famous Dr. Samuel Johnson wrote, "a female writer, like a female warrior, was considered a kind of eccentric being, but... the revolution of years has now produced a generation of Amazons of the pen, who with the spirit of their predecessors have set masculine tyranny at defiance, asserted their claim to the regions of science, and seem resolved to contest the usurpation of virility." It was not meant to be praise, though literary and proto-feminist women of the time, from Mary Wollstonecraft to Emilie de Châtelet, probably would have taken it as such.
The Amazons were being used for another purpose, too. Women were increasingly seeking out fashionable ensembles to ride horses, and "Amazonian costumes" were the label for the thing they wore. Weirdly enough, though, the Amazons were most famous for having reportedly invented trousers so they didn't have to ride side-saddle, while women wouldn't stop doing that for another few hundred years.
Amazons Are Battlefield Heroines & Theatrical Buffoons In The 19th Century
The 19th century in Germany was a weird time for the Amazonian brand. They were again a hot topic in the feminist debate, and again were used by both sides. "The connection between Amazons and women's emancipation," writes Suzanne Zantop, "was established in a series of comedies in the 19th century in which the foolishness and ultimate futility of a separate state of Amazons was 'proven'." And yet German feminists wrote about Amazons too, from chamber operas to plays and novels, staging out what an actual all-female society would be like and whether it would give women more or less freedom.
When it came to America, the notion of Amazons was brought to bear on another fight about the rights of women: female warriors in the American Civil War. As it raged in the 1860s, stories of female heroism got lots of Amazon comparisons, particularly for derring-do on horseback — but there was also considerable Amazon-based sneering. Women dressed as men were seen as vaguely threatening, and in a lot of cartoons of the period, "Amazonians" are seen as unnatural, rushing into war to do a man's job, even if in other places (like the narratives of female spies who dressed as men) being deemed an "Amazon" was a compliment.
Amazons Are Literal Strongwomen At The Dawn Of The 20th Century
At the very beginning of the 20th century, "Amazon"was no longer a name given to horse riders or spies; it referred to women who worked in the circus. The label was given to strongwomen who performed great feats in the big top, including wrestling or lifting several men in one bound, though one of the most famous strong women of the period was known as the "lady Hercules" instead.
That wasn't the whole story, though. As the battle for female equality became more heated across the US and Europe, Amazons became both symbolic (the German writer Ilse Langner's comedy Amazonen championed the rights of women) and physical; the Amazonian woman was actually seen as a kind of archetype for the ideal German female body in the Weimar Republic.
Amazons Are Tied To Everything Suffragettes To Katherine Hepburn In The 1900s
As it happens, we have Amazons to thank for the career of Katharine Hepburn, who would become famous for bending gender norms throughout her time in Hollywood. Her first role of any kind was as an Amazon in The Warrior's Husband in 1933 on Broadway — and her grand entrance meant she had to jump down some stairs carrying a dead stag, while wearing the glorious outfit seen above.
However, beyond that brilliant image, the warrior-like appeal of the Amazons was being used by the newest fight for women's equality: the pursuit of suffrage. "Suffragette Amazons," as one writer called them in 1912, were the more militant of the suffragette movement, willing to go to jail and create havoc for the sake of their beliefs, though again, the term wasn't always used as praise; newspapers reported on the tendency of suffragettes to "shriek and fight... like Amazons" with horror in 1907. With the Great War in 1914, the idea took on a new and charming meaning: a rumor spread in 1915 that the British suffragettes were forming "an Amazon battalion" and going to France to help the Allies, which, unfortunately, was false.
Wonder Woman's first appearance in the comic book world came in 1941, and with that the shape of the Amazonian inheritance in the Western world would shift forever.