Books

Jill Lepore
The Secret History of Wonder Woman

In 1937, an American psychologist named William Moulton Marston staged a press conference. Women, he announced, would one day rule the world. He soon thought up a more pervasive method to spread his message: Wonder Woman.

Today this spandex-sporting lasso-wielding Amazonian princess is familiar to audiences the globe over. But in 1941, when Wonder Woman made her debut, she was the first female superhero to have her own comic book. By the third issue she was selling more than half a million copies – only Batman and Superman were more popular. Marston quickly declared his creation “psychological propaganda” for a new type of woman.

This new woman wore thick bracelets that could stop bullets, preached love over violence, and supported the poor, the downtrodden and the abused. Wonder Woman was nothing if not political: she led rallies over milk-pricing rackets and taught husbands who maltreated their wives a lesson. Conceived during World War II, her enemies were often Japanese or German (“Vonder Voman!” they cried). Whether foreign or not, all her adversaries were men plotting to halt female progress.

Secrecy was also paramount to her charm and powers. Wonder Woman hailed from an island of women who have lived separately from men since ancient times. In her invisible plane she flew to America, where she disguised herself as secretary Diana Prince who worked for US military intelligence. In one of the early comics a newspaper editor orders his reporters to track down her origins, but when the task proves near impossible he suffers a nervous breakdown.

Luckily for us Jill Lepore has succeeded where the fictional editor failed. In The Secret History of Wonder Woman the Harvard historian and New Yorker writer has produced a fun and feisty account of the most popular female superhero created to date, replete with glossy and illuminating illustrations. This is not just a lowdown on comics, however. Lepore has uncovered a page-turning backstory more risqué and salacious than any comic strip writer could hope of churning out. 

Two threads are woven throughout. The first is the women’s suffrage, birth control and feminist movements of which Wonder Woman was a product, and later, Lepore claims, an inspiration. The second is Marston’s own offbeat life, riddled with professional failure and tempered by unconventional love.

Lepore’s authoritative prose reveals Marston as at once brilliant and cocky, disarming and precocious, tubby yet attractive. He was most well known before Wonder Woman for inventing the lie detector test. Yet despite his best efforts (he was somewhat of a wheeler-dealer who once rigged the test to endorse Gillette razor blades) it never took off and serious academia lay beyond his grasp.

It is his home life, however, that is most riveting. Marston was an advocate of free love and a fetishist who dabbled in bondage. He gave his wife Sadie Elizabeth Holloway an ultimatum: let his younger mistress Olive Byrne move in with them or the marriage is over. Holloway chose the former (the women ended up living together happily for 64 years) and Marston had two children by each. Sometimes a third long-time lover, Marjorie Wilkes Huntley, joined them.

Their ménage à trois was carefully hidden from the outside world. The inventor of the lie detector test became a master of deception. Holloway rejected domesticity to work as an editor and supported the family financially; Byrne stayed at home to bring up their three sons and one daughter; Marston scribbled away on the daybed. Any visitors were told that Byrne was the housekeeper or widowed sister-in-law: her children didn’t discover for years that Marston was their father. 

Byrne, who wore thick bracelets she never took off, was most likely the inspiration for Wonder Woman. Like Diana Prince she was a super-fast typist. By exposing the true nature of Marston’s relationship to his mistress, Lepore has also unveiled a new connection: the influence of the birth control movement on Wonder Woman. Byrne was the daughter of Ethel Byrne and niece of Margaret Sanger, radical birth control campaigners. When the sisters were charged after opening a birth control clinic, Ethel went on a hunger strike in prison and became the first woman in the US submitted to force-feeding.  

Subjugation by men is a common theme in Wonder Woman: barely a comic goes by in which the heroine is not “chained, bound, gagged, lassoed, tied, fettered and manacled”. Early feminists made ample use of the imagery of enslaved women in chains in their pamphlets: it was a nod towards their alliance with abolitionists (suffragettes literally chained themselves to railings). This is directly transposed to Wonder Woman, who only loses her powers if a man binds her. That it was also a little kinky presumably didn’t hurt sales. As Lepore wryly notes, this was “feminism as fetish”.

As such, Wonder Woman had her detractors. In 1942, the Catholic-led National Organisation for Decent Literature banned the comic, as “Wonder Woman is not sufficiently dressed”. She also falls victim to prevailing prejudices. During the war she works. But once it is over – and real-life soldiers returning home want their jobs back from women who have taken up the baton – she suddenly desires nothing more than to become a demure wife. By that point there was no Marston to prevent Wonder Woman’s demotion: he had died from cancer in 1947.

Lepore succeeds in unveiling Wonder Woman’s struggles as part of a larger feminist movement. Despite Marston’s bravado and press conferences, perhaps he didn’t want to endorse a super race of women. Instead, in his own bizarre way, he was promoting equality for all. In one strip, Wonder Woman’s love interest calls her “angel”. “What’s an angel?” she scoffs back. “I’d rather be a woman.”  EA

Scribe, 448pp, $45

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 13, 2014 as "Jill Lepore, The Secret History of Wonder Woman". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: EA