Lois Lane’s Feminist Revolution

In the 1970s, the reporter best-known as Superman’s love interest got a new female editor—and branched out as a hero in her own right.

The cover of a 1949 Superman comic (Wayne Boring and Stan Kaye / DC Comics)

Lois Lane was nearly killed in Adventures of Superman #631.

This was hardly out of the ordinary for Lois. For seven decades, she’d survived all manner of death traps as gangsters, supervillains, and even alien invaders tried to do away with her. Lois was a perpetual damsel in distress, and for vast swaths of her history she existed only to be captured and to then call out for Superman, who would swoop in to save her from certain doom.

But this 2004 issue of Adventures of Superman was different.

This time, Superman was too late. Lois was in the sights of a sniper, and Superman arrived only after she’d been shot through the chest. The circumstances were also unusual. Lois wasn’t lured into an obvious trap, nabbed while recklessly snooping around for a story that would land on the front page of the Daily Planet, or ensnared by one of the other innumerable ploys that comic-book writers used to put her in peril. In this story, Lois was the hero.

As part of an ongoing story, Lois was embedded with American troops overseas. America was at war with the fictional country of Umec, and Lois was covering the conflict for the Daily Planet. An explosion and sniper fire rocked her unit, and after the initial attack waned, Lois noticed that one of the soldiers was still alive and needed assistance. Ignoring the warnings of a fellow reporter sheltered with her in a safe zone, Lois ran to the soldier and dragged him to safety, but got shot in the process.

This issue is considered one of the most iconic Lois Lane stories ever written. Its author, Greg Rucka, was nominated for Best Writer at the Eisner Awards, the comic-book industry’s highest honors, and DC Comics recently reprinted the story in a special collection that celebrated Lois’s 75th anniversary. The bravery displayed in this story reflects a view of Lois common in the Modern Age of superhero comics, in which many consider her to be as much of a hero as those who wear capes and tights.

Lois is Superman without the superpowers. She’s not faster than a speeding bullet or more powerful than a locomotive, but she’s just as committed to truth and justice through her tireless reporting, and just as willing to put herself in harm’s way to help someone. Lois is reckless and passionate for all the right reasons, and while those qualities sometimes get her in trouble, they only further endear her to her legions of fans. To those who grew up reading her comics or watching her various live action and animated incarnations, Lois Lane is a beloved icon and role model.

However, Lois’s history is one of constant contradiction. As a normal human woman in a world of superheroes written and drawn primarily by men, she’s been subject to unrelenting gender stereotypes that often undermined her image as a fearless reporter. Her story follows two competing models: that of an independent, progressive woman and that of a limiting concept of womanhood.

The perpetual duality of Lois Lane creates an ebb and flow in her overall narrative, and each era of the character is rife with complications. As such, she embodies the progress and struggles of American women, an ongoing cycle of advances and setbacks. But it isn’t just Lois who represents the various struggles of women to be taken seriously as professionals in the second half of the 20th century. For a brief period in the 1970s, a female editor took over Lois’s story, imbuing her adventures with the spirit of the burgeoning women’s liberation movement. Her tenure was short-lived, but her influence on an iconic American character endures today.

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In 1958, DC Comics gave Lois Lane her own spinoff, titled Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane. During the 1960s, the series primarily focused on Lois’s relationship with Superman, and her various efforts to become his wife. But in 1972, this changed, largely thanks to the efforts of a new female editor, Dorothy Woolfolk.

By the late 1960s, after decades of putting up with Superman’s shenanigans both romantically and professionally, Lois was questioning her relationship with the Man of Steel. The seeds of this revolt had been germinating for a number of years, but when Superman forgot her birthday, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. In a two-part story from early 1968, Lois broke up with him and moved to Coral City, where she fell in love with an astronaut. She ended up back with Superman in Metropolis by the story’s end, but two issues apart was quite a development for a series in which romantic strife rarely lasted more than a couple of pages.

Lois also developed new interests and abilities that didn’t involve Superman. She became a volunteer nurse, and her medical training was soon a regular component of the series. She learned how to fight as well, mastering Klurkor, the Kryptonian form of karate. These self-defense skills helped her protect herself in dangerous situations, and made her a more capable investigative reporter. Lois also took on risky assignments, like joining a motorcycle gang to get the inside story on their hazardous lifestyle. While leaping into danger was nothing new for Lois, now she was better able to handle herself and wasn’t obliged to rely on Superman so often.

At the same time, women across America were also breaking out of their limiting societal roles. Tired of being treated as second-class citizens, they banded together to stand up against the patriarchy, and the women’s liberation movement swept the nation. By the early 1970s, superhero comics boasted a slew of strong, liberated woman. In Marvel’s Spider-Man comics, Mary Jane Watson was a feisty, independent redhead who had no interest in being tied down in a relationship with Peter Parker. In the Bat-books, Batgirl had a Ph.D. by day and fought criminals by night without any help from her namesake (soon she was running for Congress). In Wonder Woman, DC’s attempts at relevancy were disastrous, but Gloria Steinem and Ms. magazine soon swooped in to rebrand the superhero as a feminist icon.

Dorothy Woolfolk had worked at DC in the 1940s as an assistant editor on Wonder Woman under her maiden name, Roubicek; she was the first female editor at DC, and the only one for many years. She later worked at Atlas and EC Comics, and married the Superman writer Bill Woolfolk and had two children. After many years away from comics, Woolfolk returned to DC in early 1971 and took over their entire romance line. Falling in Love, Girls’ Love Stories, Girls’ Romances, Heart Throbs, Secret Hearts, Young Love, and Young Romance were all under her control, and the stories began to explore feminist themes, featuring protagonists with more agency who refused to settle for boys who didn’t treat them properly.

Woolfolk added Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane the following year, and she brought her sensibilities with her. In the issue before she took over, Lois’s sister, Lucy, was killed. Lucy was a regular character in Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen throughout the Silver Age, working as a flight attendant and frustrating Jimmy with her fickle approach to dating, but in the early 1970s her frivolous adventuring took a dark turn. She became a spy for the 100, a powerful crime syndicate, and was killed while trying to escape.

Woolfolk’s intent was to push boundaries with Lois, and her first issue completely changed the status quo of the book. The story began with a dazed Lois arriving back in Metropolis after she’d been missing for four weeks; her sister’s death had affected her deeply, and she’d been out of touch for nearly a month while dealing with her grief. After her friend Julie Spence saved her from some muggers, the two had a cup of tea, and hearing about Julie’s life and problems snapped Lois out of her fog. She thought, “No amount of self-pity will ever bring my sister Lucy back … It’s time I started taking a good look at this muddled world around me … and tried to help people in trouble!”

The next morning, Lois strode into the Daily Planet offices in an all-red outfit, complete with short shorts and thigh-high boots. When Perry White told her that there were assignments waiting for her, Lois replied, “Here’s an assignment for you, Perry—find yourself another girl! As of now, I’m no longer on the Planet staff!” Sick of being told what to do, Lois quit the Daily Planet to become a freelance writer, focusing only on the stories she cared about.

Later that day, Superman caught up with Lois, and she explained her new approach to life. She said, “I’ve made a vow to myself—now that my sister’s gone, I’m going to live my life for her and me . . . to make up for her death by doing twice as much in my lifetime.” Dedicating her life to helping others meant a big change in her relationship with Superman as well. She promptly broke up with him, saying, “I’m no longer the girl you come back to between missions! I can’t live in your shadow—I’ve got things to do!” and broke up with him. Superman was understanding at first, telling her that he would respect her wishes.

This only lasted until the next issue. Superman kept interfering with Lois’s investigation of the 100, telling her that it was too dangerous, but she refused to listen to him. When she reiterated her desire to do twice as much with her life, Superman snapped, “You’re only being twice as stupid!” Lois told Superman to leave and “take your super-male ego with you!” As the Man of Steel flew off in a huff, he turned back to retort, “It’ll be my super-pleasure!”

While their sniping back and forth was childish, Lois’s internal monologues demonstrated both the maturity of her actions and the feminist motivations behind them. This wasn’t a Silver Age tiff in which Lois was upset about an asinine perceived slight, nor would a superkiss fix the problem. She still loved Superman, but she realized that he was holding her back. She didn’t want to be a damsel in distress whom he protected anymore; she wanted to be her own, independent woman.

Free of Superman’s paternalistic chauvinism, Lois surrounded herself with women. She moved in with Julie and two other women, Kristin Cutler and Marsha Mallow. Lois’s roommates accompanied her when she went out investigating stories; they trekked up a dangerous mountain together when Lois was looking into a mysterious guru, and they all traveled to France to enjoy the Parisian nightlife when Lois covered the Trans-Europa Olympics. The roommates supported one another and referred to each other as sisters. In one issue, Kristin was having a difficult time and Lois was quick to remind her, “We women have to stick together.”

By this point there was also another feminist heroine in Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane. Since 1970, Lois’s stories had run 14 pages long, followed by eight pages of “Rose and the Thorn.” Created by Robert Kanigher and Ross Andru, the series’s central character, Rose Forrest, was the daughter of a Metropolis police officer who was killed by the 100. The shock of her father’s death gave her a split personality: She spent her days as the calm, peaceful Rose, and took to the streets at night to hunt the 100 as the violent, vengeful Thorn. Thorn was a powerful, independent superhero from her first appearance in Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane #105, and Woolfolk amped up the feminist content when she took over the book. One story featured a women’s liberation protest, with signs that called for “Equal Salaries for Equal Work.” In another issue, Rose worked for the campaign of Sylvia Charlton, an African American congresswoman who was running for the Senate.

There were more women behind the scenes as well. While the story that killed off Lucy Lane was written by Cary Bates, it was plotted by Irene Vartanoff, who went on to be a colorist on several Marvel books. Deborah Anderson joined the series as Woolfolk’s assistant editor.

During this era, Lois stepped into the hero role. In Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane #123, she snuck onto a rocket to investigate some suspicious activity. This was nothing new for Lois, but for once, when things inevitably went bad, she was able to take care of them herself. While in space, Lois found a ship that belonged to the 100 and was attacked by two of their goons while out on a space walk. In a zerogravity fight scene she flipped one and kicked the other, causing one of her attackers to think, “Uhh! She fights like a wildcat!”

Lois didn’t need rescuing anymore; when Superman inevitably showed up, they worked together to defeat the bad guys. While covering the Trans-Europa Olympics, Lois suspected that a valuable diamond was hidden in the Olympic torch, so she strapped on a jet pack and interrupted the rocket race to ensure that the 100 agent posing as a participant wouldn’t escape with the torch. Lois was in the business of saving lives as well; when a local children’s TV show hypnotized the citizens of Metropolis, she tackled a mesmerized man who was about to be hit by a car.

Before long, though, old romantic tropes began to creep back into the series. In one issue, Lois fell in love with a new man when she learned that he had superpowers, only to have it end badly. In another, Superman taught her a lesson about the dangers inherent in marrying him. Not only was Lois back pining for Superman again, she also returned to the Daily Planet, and her roommates disappeared from the series. This return to the status quo was due to the departure of Dorothy Woolfolk, who abruptly left Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane after only seven issues.

By the autumn of 1972, Woolfolk was gone not only from that book but from the entire romance line as well. Robert Kanigher, a regular writer on Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane with editorial experience on a variety of DC books stepped in to take over the series. Woolfolk had also been set to helm the upcoming relaunch of Wonder Woman, which would restore the heroine’s superpowers and Amazon heritage: In the spring of 1972, Ms. magazine’s celebration of Wonder Woman in their debut issue mentioned Woolfolk by name, cheering her appointment as the book’s “first woman editor” and praising her “plans to decrease violence in the plots and return our heroine to the feminism of her birth.” But when the Amazonian Wonder Woman returned in January 1973, Kanigher was editing that series too.

According to DC Comics’ editor in chief, Carmine Infantino, he fired Woolfolk. He said of her time editing the romance line, “That was a bomb. She was awful. She was always late. She did a lot of talking but no work. After a point, I had to get rid of her.” He specifically recalled, “I tried her, and every couple of months, no books, no books, no books.” But the facts don’t support his claims. All of Woolfolk’s romance books came out each month, on schedule, and she also successfully transitioned several titles from six or eight issues a year to monthly series when she took over the line.

In a letter to Gloria Steinem written soon after her dismissal from DC, Woolfolk jokingly described herself as “a woman in her 50s victimized by male chauvinism and making it on her own.” Many of her peers had little respect for her; according to Alan Kupperberg, who worked with Woolfolk, the other editors “always snickered at her behind her back” and called her names like “Ding-a-ling,” “Wolfgang,” “Dotty Dorothy,” and much worse. Kupperberg specifically singled out Infantino as one of the men who thought poorly of her.

They also looked down on Woolfolk because she edited the romance line, which was considered to be at the very bottom of the barrel in the company’s publishing hierarchy. Moreover, her approach to editing was unconventional. Instead of hiring the same old creators, Woolfolk actively sought out new, young writers and artists for her books who didn’t mesh well with many of the older men writing, drawing, and editing most of DC’s titles. Infantino and his crew were certainly more modern than the series’s former editor Mort Weisinger, but they were in no way young and hip. Woolfolk’s supposed lateness was clearly a pretense for her firing, and the real reason she was let go probably had more to do with her take-charge, staunchly feminist attitude not sitting well with the old boys’ club that ran DC.

Her departure was entirely unceremonious. When a letter in Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane complained about a recent story, new editor Robert Kanigher brusquely replied, “Both the writer of, and the editor who bought ‘Serpent in Paradise’ are no longer in Eden.” Kanigher gave Woolfolk an even crueler sendoff in Wonder Woman: The first issue of the rebranded series began with a sniper killing “Dottie Cottonman, woman’s magazine editor.”

DC swiftly excised all of Woolfolk’s feminist additions. The book’s writers and artists remained the same after her departure, but their stories reverted to the series’ previous status quo, and any mention of the women’s liberation movement disappeared. The assistant editor Deborah Anderson was gone from the book’s masthead just a few months after Woolfolk left, and she departed the romance titles she worked on as well. It was almost as if Woolfolk had never been there.

Woolfolk remained committed to bringing feminism to young audiences. Just weeks after she was fired, she spoke to a university class on mass communication about the role of feminism in comic books. By the late 1970s, Woolfolk had moved from editor to creator, launching a successful series of mystery novels with Scholastic that starred Donna Rockford, a young detective.

Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane was canceled two years after Woolfolk left, along with several other Super-books, and the characters were rolled into a new series, The Superman Family. Lois’s adventures continued there, but at a lower page count and, for the first few years, with more reprints of old material than new stories.

But despite DC’s thorough efforts to excise Woolfolk’s influence on Lois Lane, feminism was not a passing fad, and Lois’s affinity for women’s lib occasionally popped up in Superman and Action Comics. After Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs in their famed Battle of the Sexes tennis match, the staff of the Daily Planet had their own gender showdown at a bowling alley, with the men of the office composing the “male chauvinist” team against the ladies’ “women’s lib” opposition, led by Lois. The men won, thanks to Clark picking up a 7-10 split, but at least Lois’s feminist leanings were still alive.

This article has been adapted from Tim Hanley’s book, Investigating Lois Lane: The Turbulent History of the Daily Planet’s Ace Reporter.