“Wonder Woman, one of the most important superheroes of the 1940s, was the product of the suffragist, feminist, and birth control movements of the 1900s and 1910s and became a source of the women’s liberation and feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s. The fight for women’s rights has been a river, wending.”
Our history is written in our popular culture. Jill Lepore, American History Professor at Harvard and contributor to The New Yorker, knows this. So well in fact that the best thing about The Secret History of Woman, Lepore’s 300-page origin story of Wonder Woman and her creator, is that the author feels no hesitation situating her subject matter, which is a comic book superhero, in the history of American Feminism. Lepore is not a comic book historian (the least successful part of this book is Lepore’s discussion–or lack thereof– of actual comic books), but her central premise, that in Wonder Woman we can see the history of women’s rights in the past century, is a powerful one to elucidate. Luckily, Lepore has done the research and The Secret History of Wonder Woman is a fascinating and hilighy rewarding read as a result.
Lepore looks at the history of Wonder Woman as a mystery surrounding the heroine’s creator, Willliam Moulton Marston. Marston was a psychologist (like Lepore, he taught at Harvard) with radical ideas about sex and the sexes. He lived an ambitious life full of a wide-ranging pursuits and believed, as every review must mention, that women should rule the world. Of Marston’s varied pursuits and accomplisments, Lepore gives special detail to the following:
• He invented the lie-detector test,
• He was failure as an academic, but had a need for popular attention and academic approval,
• he believed in the cause of feminism, and
• most notably, that he lived in a polyamorous relationship.
William Moulton Marston had two wives (and at least one more partner). He married the girl of his childhood romance, Sadie Elizabeth Holloway, in 1915. Holloway was a highly degreed woman for her era (she earned an BA from Mount Holyoke, a Law Degree from Boston University, and an MA from Radcliffe), though she could not get a PhD in Psychology; barred by her sex.
Then, in 1928, the Marston family welcomed Olive Byrne. Byrne was a writer and the niece of the famed women’s rights and birth control activist Margaret Sanger. Olive’s mother, Ethel Byrne, was jailed for her activism on women’s rights, and went on a hunger-strike in jail. Olive Byrne wore short hair and golden bracelets (as does, Lepore repeats many times, Wonder Woman) and was a radical figure socially and politically.
The Marston household and bedroom (presumably) also regularly, though not permanently, included Marjorie Wilkes Huntley, a librarian and “aunt” to the kids. Huntley was also a bondage enthusiast (for all the talk of bondage, Lepore is very uneasy about discussing sex) and likely influenced the heavy bondage themes of Marston’s Wonder Woman. The nature of this familial arrangement was kept a secret, even from the children (Marston fathered four children, two of whom were unaware he was their father until years after his death). The family was not just polyamorous, it would seem, but also bi-sexual (again, a subject Lepore treads lightly around). When William Moulton Marston died in 1947, Bryne and Holloway lived together until Byrne died in 1990.
These are the key players in Lepore’s story, though Marston was a boisterous character (“awesomely cocky,” Lepore writes) and drew many into his orbit. But in her study of the origins of Wonder Woman, Lepore focuses primarily on these women and the man who loved them. Marston and his family were dedicated to the advancement of women’s rights; a freethinking bunch who found themselves with an opportunity in Wonder Woman to harness expression for a cause that was desperately needed.
How this unconventional family produced one of the most popular comic book characters of all-time I will leave readers to discover. And I highly recommend you do so. Even if, at times, it feels that Lepore comes close to voyeurism at the odd Marston Family, The Secret History of Wonder Woman reads like a mystery novel, and it’s quite fun to spend a few hundred pages with a character like Marston. Inside the history of Wonder Woman is also the history of American feminism and crucial fights over the arts, decency and culture, and that story is found in the Marston household as much as anywhere.
Still, for all the research and narrative style, there is more to Wonder Woman that could be here. Lepore’s history of Wonder Woman has little to do with comic book history, and that is ultimately the greatest short-coming of The Secret History of Wonder Woman. Her attention is largely focused on the history of the Marston Family, and their involvement in feminism and culture of the early 20th century. Like it or not, though, this is comic book scholarship, and more attention to comics as a whole would be fitting (Lepore gives an unfortunately small portion of her attention to Harry G. Peter, who was crucial in the developing early Wonder Woman).
The same criticism stands for bondage. The influence of bondage imagery–everywhere in the early years of Wonder Woman–sheds light on the creators of the book, and the conditions of women in early 20th century America (women bound was a commonly used image in the suffrage movement) and Lepore does well to remind readers that bondage has a larger social role to play when Marston writes Diana Prince into chains or ropes or cuffs. But I can’t help feeling that Lepore is more interested in Staff Sargent John D. Jacobs of the US Army, who is “one of those odd, unfortunate men who derive an extreme erotic pleasure from the mere thought of a beautiful girl, chained or bound.” Sargent Jacobs wrote to Marston wondering where he might purchase some of the bondage implements used in the comics.
Women in comics, as heroes, villains, and most often, love-interests is a complicated subject for study and much of that starts with Marston and Peter’s Wonder Woman. From the origin of the medium until right now, portraits of women in comics have created conflict for so many creators and publishers. What Marston did with those early years of Wonder Woman was striking and powerful, and while it did say much about the circumstances of her creation, it’s possible that the bondage of Wonder Woman has as much or more to say about comic books in the years since Marston’s death, when Wonder Woman was tamed, as it does to the private lives of Olive Byrne and Sadie Holloway.
Regardless, Lepore makes clear that Marston wanted his readers to think about gender and feminsim and women in bondage when they read Wonder Woman. And for that alone it’s hard to find fault in her book.
Marston wanted to create a woman who was a hero, who could be president, not a woman who should be “Superman’s wife.” When Marston was working with DC Comics editor Sheldon Mayer on the origins of Wonder Woman, Marston left no room for interpretation about what he wanted from his heroine. “About the story’s feminism,” Lepore writes, “he was unmovable. ‘Let that theme alone,” [Marston] told [Mayer], ‘or drop the project.”
Wonder Woman–and comic books in general–belong in conversations about 20th century American history. The Amazon warrior comes from the suffrage movement, the birth-control movement, and the rise of the feminism. Lepore claims that “she is the missing link in a chain of events that begins with the woman suffrage campaigns of the 1910s and ends with the troubled place of feminism fully a century later.” After reading The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Lepore may be right.