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Suffering Sappho!

The Secret History of Wonder Woman

By Jill Lepore 

2 Dec, 2015


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I like to believe that I am blind to ads, but this review is proof that I may be deluding myself. The Comics Curmudgeon has been running a banner ad for Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman on their Livejournal feed; then I happened to see a copy of this book at Kitchener Public Library. Reader, I snagged it. Hmmm. 

The title is a bit of a misnomer. It’s true that much of the book deals with Wonder Woman, one of the so-called Big Three superheroes at DC Comics, someone often mentioned in the same breath as Batman and Superman. However, even more of this book is devoted to the circumstances that led to Wonder Woman’s creation.

Although William Moulton Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman, puts in an early appearance in the text, the early chapters devote more space to an outline of the women’s rights movement of the early 20th century1. The movement agitated for suffrage (Emmeline Pankhurst) and reproductive autonomy (Margaret Sanger). In those days, women’s rights (at least in Anglophone countries) were being expanded rather than continually attacked and eroded. 

Marston benefited from the women’s rights movement in at least two ways. 1) It gave him a righteous cause to support, and 2) Margaret Sanger rescued her infant niece Olive Byrne from the snowbank into which Olive had been cast by her drunken lout of a father, which meant that Olive lived to meet Marston … who fell in love with her. Of course, she was only one of the women with whom Marston fell in love. Marston had an unconventional love life and even more unconventional household, which he and his companions managed to keep going despite living in an America that very much frowned on such arrangements.

Before I read this book, I knew something about Marston’s home life. Moreover, I suspected (as did many readers of the early Wonder Woman comics) that he had a bondage kink. What I did not know about Marston was that he was a self-aggrandizing entrepreneur and that the accounts of many of his achievements had been .… enhanced by Marston to make them more public relations friendly.

His life was not at all a direct march towards success in feminist comics. He had tried his hand at a number of jobs and schemes, none of which were ever as successful as he had hoped. Indeed, until he created Wonder Woman, it might be more accurate to say that he had failed at pretty much every employment he undertook. It’s a good thing his wife had a steady job. Also a good thing that, unlike a certain other author2. Marston’s conception of the cosmic all included the notion that women could have their own careers without this reflecting badly on their husbands. Marston’s expression of his ideals can look rather odd from a modern perspective, but at least his character was based in ideals, rather than mere commercial considerations3.

It’s probably for the best that Wertham never got wind of Marston’s household arrangements. 

Given that Marston was in many ways an outlier, it’s not surprising that the other writers who worked on the comic either failed to understand his vision or were overtly hostile to his ideals. It was the other writers who demoted Wonder Woman from the front lines to become the Justice Society secretary. After Marston died, subsequent DC writers morphed Wonder Woman from a feisty feminist paragon (who spent a surprising amount of her time tied up) into powerless knockoff of Emma Peel, and later into a casual killer. I much prefer this Wonder Woman 

to this one

Having read the book under review, I understand better how that evolution occurred. 

Although Lepore’s text can be a bit dry at times, I found it quite useful. I knew something of Marston and his lovers. I hadn’t known at all how he and his work fit into the United States of the first half of the 20th century. Now I have a better grasp of Wonder Woman’s original context. 

The Secret History of Wonder Woman is available from Knopf.

1: How much page space is devoted to Sanger’s remarkable views on immigration and eugenics, you ask? Not much at all, to be honest. 

2: Heinlein forced his second wife Virginia to stop working even before they got married. Despite the fact that they were both dead broke.

3: Aside from dressing Wonder Woman as skimpily as the editor felt his company could get away with. That was entirely commercial.