...were none of the heroines of the later "Ages" as worthy of mention as Wonder Woman? I think that there have been many, but their prevalence is qualified by a "sea-change" in the history of superhero comics. Since the 1960s, many of the most famous female crimefighrers have not been solo combatants, but have flourished within superhero groups. Indeed, the idea of the "team book" became far more significant in post-Silver Age comics-history, apart from the role of female heroes in those teams. Most of these fighting-femmes came to prominence in teams, as with the Invisible Girl/Woman, Marvel Girl, the Wasp, Elasti-Girl, and Scarlet Witch.
I said that my next essay would address the question of " why the most important female characters of the Silver and Bronze Ages were so "team-centric." First, though, I chose to address the structural makeup of heroes and heroines alike in this essay, in which I mentioned that the two "generic hero-types" provided the most formative influence upon the superhero: what I termed "the urban avenger" and the "miracle hero." That said, I added that the former heroic type tended to influence the stories of even characters with miraculous powers:
...even characters who had super-powers-- Superman, the Human Torch, the Sub-Mariner-- did not tend to explore their own miraculous natures in depth. They were quickly dragooned into the pattern of the "urban avenger," of patrolling a given city in search of injustices to avenge.
Interestingly, one of the main exceptions to this pattern is also comic books' best known superheroine. As scripted by creator William Marston, Wonder Woman lived in an Amazonian domain as extraordinary as the powers she possessed, and often ventured far beyond the environs of the urban sprawl, encountering seal-men, Venusian winged girls, and many other creatures who shared only one thing in common: a predilection for exotic methods of bondage.
However, most other female heroes followed the pattern set by the Golden Age's other successful superheroine, the Black Cat. Miss Victory, Black Canary, Liberty Belle, Blonde Phantom, and many others all followed the "urban avenger" pattern, and this extended also to most of the other super-powered types, like Mary Marvel.
It has been conjectured that there might have even been more female readers during the Golden Age than male readers. This may well have been true, but most of the creators and producers of comic books were male, and I for one do not fault them for seeking their fortunes with fantasies of male accomplishment that they themselves innately understood. The very fact that they attempted female heroes at all, even though most of these characters were not financially rewarding, demonstrates that the men behind the stories were willing to let comic books be a "co-ed club," in which girl heroes could be as forthright and powerful as boy heroes. Probably few of them thought as actively as Marston did about seeking out a gendered identity for female readers through superhero comics. But I hypothesize that Golden Age superhero comics made more honest attempts to appeal to a female readership than one can find in the adventure-oriented genres of the pulps whose example the comics-medium followed. Only specialists in pulp literature can conjure with obscure heroines like the Golden Amazon (for pulp SF) or Senorita Scorpion (for pulp westerns).
There weren't many superheroes or superheroines by the final years of the Golden Age, since other genres had become more profitable. However, even as the Comics Code looomed on the horizon, there were still a handful of titles starring female heroes, principally jungle girls, who as discussed before may be deemed a species of "exotic avengers."
By 1957, though, most if not all of them were off the stands, and I'm aware of no female characters who obtained their own starring features-- even as backup strips-- from 1955-1958. The Silver Age Supergirl broke that chain, being introduced in a in ACTION COMICS #252 (May 1959), with a backup series proceeding immediately thereafter. It may be that editor Mort Weisinger felt confident about launching her in a backup right away-- rather than waiting for reader-response-- because he'd already received positive feedback from readers from an earlier incarnation of "Super-Girl" in SUPERMAN #158 (August 1958).
When the Silver Age advanced from its first tentative steps in the late 1950s to a full-fledged investment in the superhero idiom, though, one aspect of the Golden Age was abandoned. Male solo heroes still appeared with great frequency, but the majority of superheroines showed up only as the members of teams.
In Part 2, I'll discuss the reasons for this development.
ADDENDUM: There is one other female character who obtained a starring feature the same year that Supergirl gained hers: in August 1959 the wartime adventuress "Mademoiselle Marie," created by Robert Kanigher and Jerry Grandinetti, made her debut in Star Spangled War Stories #84.