The Secret History of Wonder Woman

Today, I heard history professor Jill Lepore talk about her recent book, The Secret History of Wonder Woman.

The story is one of sex and sexual identity, of feminism and struggles against convention.

According to Lepore, Wonder Woman began in 1941 as a tool for silencing critics of comic books. With the genre having only recently arrived on the scene, parents were concerned about the effects of comic books on their impressionable young children.

Superman came from a master race – problematic for 1941. Batman originally carried a gun – which was also unfavorable to the sensibilities of the day. In fact, in an effort to console concerned parents, Bruce Wayne was later given a back story – one in which his parents were shot – and Batman ceased to carry a gun.

Wonder Woman was supposed to quell such critics – although she ultimately drew more criticism of her own – by fighting for truth, love, and equal rights.

Before giving the new character her own comic book line, a short survey was given to comic readers – Should Wonder Woman be allowed, even though a woman, to become a member of the Justice Society?

Surveys came back favorably, and Wonder Woman was given her own line.

Creator William Moulton Marston, a psychologist with a Harvard education, described his creation in the early 40s: “Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.”

If that seems somewhat radical for a white man in the 40s, it probably was. Marston grew up seeing the front lines of the suffragette movement – his Freshman year at Harvard he heard radical feminist and political activist Emmeline Pankhurst speak. She didn’t speak at Harvard proper, though a male student group invited her, but rather spoke off campus as the administration would not allow women in Harvard Yard.

Marston was fascinated by radical feminists and passionate about equal rights. “The only hope for civilization is the greater freedom, development and equality of women in all fields of human activity,” read the press release announcing Wonder Woman.

In Lepore’s description, the history of Wonder Woman quickly becomes a history of Marston – and of Marston’s family.

As the New York Times describes, “The Secret History of Wonder Woman” is fundamentally a biography of Wonder Woman’s larger-than-life and vaguely creepy male creator, William Moulton Marston (1893-1947). He was a Harvard graduate, a feminist and a psychologist who invented the lie detector test. He was also a huckster, a polyamorist (one and sometimes two other women lived with him and his wife), a serial liar and a bondage super-enthusiast.

But that doesn’t really tell the story.

Marston married his college sweetheart, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, and then later – while working as a professor at Tufts University – fell in love with a student, Olive Byrne.

Eventually, Olive moved in with Marston and his wife, and Olive and Elizabeth each bear two children.

After Marston’s death in 1947, Olive and Elizabeth continued to live together until Olive’s death in the 1980s.

Lepore, a dedicated historian, lamented that there isn’t more documentation clearly describing the nature of their relationship. There are no letters between the two women, no notes indicating intimacy.

At least none which survived.

The polyamorous relationship was quite scandalous, you see, and a lot of effort was put into obfuscation. Marston was eventually blocked from his academic career due to the unsavory nature of his personal life. Meanwhile Olive – the daughter of Ethel Byrne and niece of Margaret Sanger – was concerned that the truth of her personal life would destroy advocacy for birth control.

And at the center of it all is Wonder Woman.

Wonder Woman was conceived as part Olive, part Elizabeth, part Margaret Sanger. She was a compilation of all these powerful and strong woman Marston had in his life. But she was part Martson – a man who I imagine wished he could have seen more Wonder Woman in himself.

Leport said that the story of Marston is about the cost of living an unconventional life.

If that’s the case, it is this intimate vulnerability which reveals Wonder Woman’s true power. Wonder Woman’s story isn’t about leading an unconventional life – it’s about leading the life you want to live and fighting to have that life accepted.

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