In 1938, the world changed forever when a costumed, caped hero appeared on the cover of the very first issue of Action Comics. But while Superman would wow readers with feats of strength and heroics, another character rose up out of the panels to give the Man of Steel a run for his money. Lois Lane appeared at the very same time, leaping off the page and into action alongside her heroic counterpart, locked in a very different battle than those faced by the Kryptonian -- a battle for a front page story. Though Lois has changed and evolved a great deal over her three-quarters of a century, certain things have remained the same. No matter what positions her writers put her in, or how many times he had to be saved by Superman, Lois has remained stubborn, dogged and fearless in her pursuit of truth, justice and the Daily Planet’s biggest headlines.
Lois was, technically, inspired by flesh and blood women (taking her first name from a childhood sweetheart, and her physical appearance from Jerry Siegel's wife), but her dogged personality came from another fictional newswoman, Torchy Blane. Played by Glenda Farrell, and star of a series of detective/reporter adventure films in the 1930s, Torchy Blane was a fast-talking, no-nonsense newspaperwoman. Her take-no-prisoners attitude and dismissal of anyone who thought she shouldn’t stick her delicate nose into places she didn’t belong, tended to get her into a number of sticky situations. Sound familiar?
While Lois Lane was living her life on the page (and Torchy living hers on the silver screen), real world women were living very similar lives, and risking a great deal to do so. Though Lois’ creators have never spoken publicly about any real-world journalistic inspiration for the character, it’s hard to ignore the striking similarities between Lois and the women who dared to live her life in newsrooms, battlefields, and pillars of testosterone across history.
Surprisingly, newsrooms were some of the few businesses in the late 19th and early 20th centuries where women were actually given the ability to make a name for themselves, though it would take the better part of a century for women to make their way to the front page on any sort of equal footing with their male counterparts.
Nellie Bly and Stunt Journalism
One of the most famous female journalists of all time was Elizabeth Cochran. Writing under the pen name “Nellie Bly”, she helped pioneer the field of investigative journalism, Lois’ beat of choice. Bly first started working for a local paper in Pittsburgh, writing hard-hitting investigative pieces aimed at women’s issues of the time, reporting on factory conditions where many working women earned their paltry wages. She even tried her hand at international reporting, taking a six-month assignment in Mexico, writing about culture, until her criticism of the government and their treatment of an imprisoned reporter landed her a series of threats, and forced her to flee the country. I imagine Lois Lane, who developed a habit of getting herself into dangerous situations over her many years in the comic book pages, would be a very big fan of that particular piece of Bly’s history.
Despite her ambitions, her talent, and her knack for getting under the skin of authority figures, Bly (much like Lois) was constantly pressured to retreat back to the “women’s section” of the papers. Her editors pushed her to write about fashion, art, and social events, none of which piqued the interest of the adventurous reporter. If she wanted her editors to take her seriously, she was going to need to ruffle some bigger feathers. Inspired by the fictional adventure from Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, Bly made worldwide headlines in 1888 by making her own world-spanning journey in just 72. But it was an assignment much closer to home, and a year earlier, that created the biggest waves.
In 1887, Nellie Bly got herself checked into the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell Island in New York. She wasn’t really suffering from a psychotic break, but rather, she and her new editors concocted an elaborate and potentially dangerous, plan to uncover what was really going on inside the asylum’s walls. She managed to fool a series of doctors into having her committed, and once inside experienced the deplorable conditions forced upon patients. Her exposé on those conditions forced major changes in the way we diagnose and treat mental patients, helped to increase funding to mental health programs and got a grand jury to open an investigation into the asylum where she had spent a hellish week and a half.
Sob Sisters Work Their Way to the Front Page
While Nellie Bly is easily the most recognizable name in female journalism and possibly inspired some of the tenacity of Lois Lane’s character, it was Lois’ real life contemporaries that likely inspired her immediate path at what was then called the Daily Star (later the Daily Planet).
When Lois premiered in the pages of Action Comics #1, she wasn’t the story breaking, headline-making, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter we know and love today. Instead, she did what many of the women in her line of work did: She wrote an advice column. Spanning through much of the early 1940s, Lois spent her days answering letters to the lovelorn under the pseudonym Miss Henkel. Meanwhile, women like Winifred Bonfils (who wrote under the name Annie Laurie, and sported a terrifying raccoon stole), Elizabeth Merriweather Gilmer (writing as Dorothy Dix), and dozens of others, became famous of their advice to lonely women and jilted housewives across the country. Occasionally, some of these women would branch out of their letter columns, writing investigative pieces that spoke primarily to the female readers of the papers. These articles, despite the work and skill required to report them, were seen as less important than the work of their male counterparts, as they were emotional, or empathetic, earning these female reporters the nickname “Sob Sisters”.
Lois Lane would work alongside these Sob Sisters for years before she finally earned her way to the front page of the Daily Star in Action Comics #17, the beginning of a trend that picked up slowly, before taking a backseat to her love affair with Superman (and her rivalry with Lana Lang). That first headline would land on comic stands in 1940, and over the next several years Lois would fully break out of her Sob Sister shell. From the beginning of the 1940s until the years following World War II, Lois would land a series of big stories, quickly becoming the Daily Planet’s ace reporter. What’s more, she would come about her big scoops in daring ways, sometimes risking her life for a headline. Her success at Metropolis’ biggest news source meant her days answering letters from the lovelorn were a piece of history.
At the same time, Lois was grabbing her own front page stories, America went to war, and with it, female journalists fought new battles of their own. As American men were drafted into the battles raging overseas, women would take their places in factories, offices, and yes, in the newsroom. One hundred twenty-seven women would even fight to earn their place on the battlefield, covering the war up close and personal, while others covered the war effort at home.
Headlines to Husbands
The end of the war meant the struggle to maintain their positions increased back at home. As men returned from the front lines, they expected their jobs in the newsrooms back home to be waiting for them when they arrived. At the same time, Lois was fighting a very different battle: One with the Comics Code Authority, a return to traditional views and representations of women in comic books, and Mort Weisinger, who had just returned as editor of the Superman line of books.
Under Weisinger, Superman and Lois both took on very different roles, all with the intention of making Superman an even more impressive hero. In his book Investigating Lois Lane, author Tim Hanley observes, “One of Weisinger’s major innovations was elevating Superman from a valiant hero to a genius mastermind. Not only was he stronger than everyone, he was smarter than them, too.” This shift in how Weisinger wanted audiences to view Superman meant he also had to shift how audiences saw the characters that orbited him, namely Lois Lane.
Starting in the late 1940s, Lois’ focus began to shift. No longer was she primarily concerned with breaking big stories and grabbing front page headlines. Now, all she wanted was to unmask the Man of Steel, proving once and for all that the hero she loved and her biggest rival at the paper were one and the same. Story after story, adventure after adventure, Lois worked tirelessly to prove that Clark Kent was Superman, and time and again Superman was able to outsmart the fearless reporter, much to the delight of readers.
Portrayals of Lois shifted even further during the 1950s, as the backlash over violence, gore, and sexuality led to the publishing of the book Seduction of the Innocent, which claimed that comic books had become a serious cause of juvenile delinquency. In response, the largest publishers in the world banded together to form the Comics Association of America, and established the Comics Code Authority, which strictly regulated the content of all comics published in the United States. The Comics Code established a series of strict rules, governing everything from the use of bloody violence, to how criminals and police officers were depicted, to the way relationships played out on the page.
It was the last one which had the greatest effect on Lois and other female characters. The Comics Code demanded creators find ways to portray more traditional relationships, which meant driving home the idea that the goal of pursuing a romantic interest was marriage and a family. Lois had now spent more than a decade running through the pages of Superman stories an unmarried career woman. Now she wanted to convince Superman to settle down.
Meanwhile, Lois’ creators were changing her relationship with Superman and with readers, they were also expanding her role at DC. In 1958, she got her own series, an extension of her ongoing adventures in the publisher’s main titles called Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane. But while Lois was the star, she was still playing second fiddle to Superman. Lois continued her quest to learn Superman’s secret identity, but while Superman continued to outsmart her, he was also trying to change who she was and how she did her job. Lois was still taking risks to land stories, but now things were rarely going her way. When her plans failed (and even more so, when Superman was the cause of that failure), Lois would admonish herself, learning that she shouldn’t be quite so nosey or so reckless.
Lois’ portrayal over nearly three decades of comics history stood in stark contrast to the struggles of real life female reporters. While Lois was losing her own battle to the Comics Code and a more traditional representation of women in the pages of comic books, female journalists had proved their mettle on the battlefields of Europe and Asia. The next few decades saw women finally earning their shot at more traditional male desks, reporting on city news, crime, and international stories. While Lois won Superman’s heart, women like Caro Brown and Mary Lou Werner were winning Pulitzers.
A New Lois for a New Age
Over time, this new idea of women not just making headlines, but breaking them, eventually made its way into Lois’ world full time. The 1970s saw another big shift in the character, one that was much more in line with the advancements women in her line of work her making. A brand new creative team was brought in to oversee Lois’ stories in The Superman Family, a new series that took over after Superman’s Girlfriend was canceled. That new team, anchored by writer Tom DeFalco, would push Lois into modern times, giving her back much of the moxie that made her an instant hit when she premiered back in the 1930s.
Meanwhile, in the real world, society was becoming much less focused on the wholesome family values of the '50s and early '60s. The counterculture movements of the late '60s and early '70s lead to an altered view and opinion on media, and to an updated version of the Comics Code Authority. Following the widespread disapproval of the Vietnam War, the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1967, and coinciding with the downfall of Richard Nixon in the early 1970s, the Comics Code finally started to allow for a more sympathetic view of criminals, and for corruption in government and politics.
As if the culture of the time was just looking to be turned entirely on its head, the Women’s Liberation Movement also created massive waves, especially for female journalists. The 1970s saw female publishers and editors, along with the rise of women like Barbara Walters (who became the first female anchor of a national nightly news show in 1976), and Gloria Steinem, who remains, to this day, one of the biggest names in the feminist movement. The Lois Lane of the 1970s was almost a direct response to women’s lib, setting out on her own stories, getting into trouble, and saving herself in the process.
Lois Lane stories of the Bronze Age would continue to flesh out her backstory, celebrate her ambition and ingenuity, and even award her with a Pulitzer Prize of her very own. To this day, Lois honors the efforts of her real life predecessors fighting for truth, justice, and the American way, all with a pen (or a smartphone) and her ever ready razor sharp wit.
Which of Lois Lane's adventures are your favorite? Let us know in the comments!
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