Book review: THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN by Jill Lepore (Knopf, 410 pp.) This review originally ran in the Boston Globe on October 23, 2014.
Who is Wonder Woman? She is, of course, the Amazonian superhero fighting for women’s rights, with a secret agenda that included securing access to birth control, free love, and the importance of erotic bondage — preferably chains — in uniting two (or more) lovers in polyamory. Not what you expected? Harvard professor and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore, author of the new book, “The Secret History of Wonder Woman,’’ is here to tell you: You have no idea.
As Lepore explains, Wonder Woman’s history was “a family secret, locked in a closet.” That’s because the trio of people who inspired and created her, renegade psychologist and eventual comic-book writer William Moulton Marston, career woman and editor Elizabeth Holloway, and writer Olive Byrne, beloved niece of birth-control activist Margaret Sanger, were determined that it be so. The three were in fact a threesome (a fourth woman, Marjorie Wilkes Huntley, also lived with the trio off and on for decades) and together raised four children, two of Holloway’s and two of Byrne’s, all sired by Marston. Marston and Holloway were legally married; Byrne was usually described as a live-in governess, widowed with two children. The children didn’t know the truth until they were well into adulthood.
The first half of “The Secret History of Wonder Woman’’ tells the story of these three and the world of radical politics in which they lived. They were activists in the struggles for women’s suffrage, access to birth control, and equal rights of the early 1900s, participating in bohemian Greenwich Village salons in which socialism, androgyny, and free love were explored.
They also shared a belief in what Lepore describes as a “cult of female sexual power,” a vision of a woman-centric world not too different from the kind you’d find in Amazonia, Wonder Woman’s hometown. It was a thrilling time; women were granted the right to vote in 1919, and the Equal Rights Amendment was introduced in Congress in 1923. The prospect of legal gender equality seemed inevitable.
Marston had been a staunch feminist since his undergraduate days at Harvard, where he studied psychology. He was fascinated by the male-female relationship, and his theories of dominance and submission influenced not only his personal relationships but also the superhero he would eventually create. (“Not a comic book in which Wonder Woman appeared, and hardly a page, lacked a scene of bondage,” says Lepore, a fetish that eventually became the target of morality crusaders in the 1950s.) Perhaps because Marston’s private life was kept secret, he was also obsessed with the ways in which people suppress the truth, an interest that led to his invention of one of the first lie-detector tests.
It was only when Lepore encountered Marston’s name in two disparate archives — first in the history of the lie-detector test and then in the papers of Margaret Sanger — that the secret history was revealed. Marston himself was always frank about his political agenda. In the cover letter he wrote to DC accompanying his first “Wonder Woman” script he argued that the comic would chronicle “a great movement now under way — the growth in the power of women . . . Let that theme alone . . . or drop the project.” “The only hope for civilization,” Marston wrote in a “Wonder Woman” press release, “is the greater freedom, development, and equality of women.’’
Marston’s career as a psychologist was hurt by rumors of his unconventional family life, and he struggled to find work. He was eventually hired as a consulting psychologist at DC Comics as a sort of bulwark against the growing societal concerns that comics were immoral and overly violent. Marston answered the critics with the idea for a new character: Wonder Woman.
As Lepore shows, in the original comics created and written by Marston beginning in 1941, “Wonder Woman was a Progressive Era feminist” who fought for justice and also explicitly for women’s rights, “organizing boycotts, strikes, and political rallies” and protesting the wage gap between men and women. “’Girls, starting now your salaries are doubled!’” Wonder Woman proclaimed in a 1942 comic.
What Lepore does so well is to show how Wonder Woman’s career mirrored the hopes, progress, and eventual disappointments of the American women’s movement in the 20th century. When American women began entering the workforce during World War II, Wonder Woman was at her strongest, battling evil and refusing to settle down and get married (Amazonian law forbade it). After the war ended and women were hustled back into the home, Wonder Woman’s power likewise faded.
The big changes took place after Marston died in 1947 and other writers took over the series. No longer a crime fighter, now she was “a babysitter, a fashion model, and a movie star. She [also] wanted, desperately, to marry Steve.” By the late 1960s she had lost her superpowers altogether. Although she was reclaimed by feminists in the early 1970s and appeared on the cover of Ms. magazine’s first issue under the banner, “Wonder Woman For President,” her status as a feminist icon withered.
Marston’s widows lived into the 1990s and remained devoted to each other for the rest of their lives. They “never broke their silence” about the truth of their relationship or of Wonder Woman’s radical past. As women who were young when the Equal Rights Amendment was introduced to Congress in 1923, you have to wonder what they thought about the fact that it was never ratified. And were they depressed by the fact that Americans were still arguing about abortion a century after Margaret Sanger began fighting for women’s reproductive rights? There’s a new Wonder Woman movie coming in 2017. If Lepore’s “secret history” has proved one thing, it’s that at least so far each era has gotten the Wonder Woman it deserves.