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The Secret History of Wonder Woman, by Jill Lepore.

July 20, 2014

The Secret History of Wonder Woman, by Jill Lepore.  Random House. Available October 2014.

A fascinating history of the creation of the Wonder Woman comic strip, its creator, and its beginnings in the radical feminist world of early twentieth century.

Jill Lepore is an accomplished historian specializing in eighteenth century America. With regular articles in The New Yorker and books accessible to a general audience, she has an exceptional ability to write history for those outside the academic establishment. Best of all, she obviously enjoys discovering interesting tidbits of the past, especially when they concern Harvard, where she teaches. Recently I read and enjoyed her impressive biography of Ben Franklin’s sister, Book of Ages. (See my review.) In her newest book she applies her historians’ skills to the popular comic strip, Wonder Woman, its eccentric creator William Moulton Marston, and the way in which the comic strip reveals a link between the feminism of the early twentieth century and the feminism that surfaced in the 1960s and 1970s.

The major character in The Secret History of Wonder Woman is the comic stripe’s creator, William Marston, a bright and multifaceted young man who attended Harvard, earning his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees there, as well as his law degree and a Ph.D. in the new discipline of Psychology. While at Harvard he was exposed to the militant feminism emerging in the United States which followed the example of Ernestine Pankhurst and the English suffragists. Sadie Elizabeth Hollowell, his strong, outspoken girlfriend, and later wife, was attending Mount Holyoke and shared her devotion to women’s equality with him. While still an undergraduate, Marston was involved in Harvard’s psychological laboratory’s attempts to create a device that could accurately prove if a person was telling the truth. He went on to perfect and promote an early lie-detector, but he failed to succeed in his efforts to earn money from his device, or to begin a business or to climb the academic ladder.

Marston and those around him constantly told lies, in part to keep his unconventional household secret. In addition to his wife, Marston brought home Marjorie Humpery, a woman with whom he was sexually involved. Over the years she stayed with the couple for long periods of time. In addition, when he was teaching at Tufts, Marston became involved with a student, Olive Byrne,who joined his household permanently. She was the daughter of Margaret Sanger’s more radical sister. For much of the 1920s and 1930s, Marston’s wife supported the family with editorial and administrative jobs while Byrne kept house and raised the children, two of her own and two of his wife’s, all sired by Marston.

Marston’s household was full of discussion of birth control and other ideas espoused by the new feminism. Lepore traces the ways in which younger women rejected the ideals and images of sacrificial motherhood which characterized the older women’s rights movement. They focused instead on individualism and pleasure for women. Although often little known and over-looked, these women laid the ground work for the feminism that emerged in the mid to late twentieth century. Lepore argues that instead of having had two “waves” of advocacy for women in the United States, feminism has been a river with Wonder Woman and those around her creation linking the years between the 1920s and the 1960s.

Although Marston welcomed the images of the New Woman being advocated by the feminists, he ran his household as something of an old-fashioned dictator. He believed, like the women’s rights advocates of the last century, that women were superior to men, stronger and “better” in every way. He also believed that women enjoyed being dominated. In fact for him, their enjoyment of domination was essential if the world was ever to know peace.

When comic books were an instant success in the 1930s, Marston was intrigued. In 1941, just as his nation entered World War II, Marston grabbed the opportunity to publish Wonder Woman comics, featuring a strong woman from Amazonia, a woman comparable to Superman and Spider Man. In it he drew on earlier utopian feminist novels by Charlotte Gilman and Inez Hayes. His character, however, was beautiful and scantily clothed. In his comic, Wonder Woman and the other women were regularly tied and bonded, to the dismay of Marston’s critics.   The public at large loved the comic and it became an icon of the period.  (I am currently reading a novel about life in New York city during World War II in which the little girl loves Wonder Woman.)    By the mid-1940s, however, Marston was ill and dying.  Those who took over the series took away Wonder Woman’s strength and made her subservient to men. When feminism reappeared in the 1960s and 1970s, Wonder Woman had a brief revival. While popular she never reached her former stature.

My summary hardly does justice to all the stories that Lepore has interwoven into her account. I highly recommend the book to all who are interested in the curious mix of information The Secret History of Wonder Woman provides. Lepore writes excellent popular history and provides useful insight into twentieth feminism.

Available October 2014.



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