The Secret History of Wonder Woman, by Jill Lepore


I was so happy to receive this book as a present. I enjoyed Wonder Woman comics as a girl, but it wasn’t until I was a frantic single mother, working two and sometimes three jobs, trying to keep up the house and be a good parent to two sensitive and feisty boys and shuttle them to Little League and Scouts and choir, that she began to haunt my imagination.

It started with a cartoon. I don’t still have it, so I don’t know who drew it and may be getting the details wrong, but it showed an overweight, middle-aged woman, fag hanging from a corner of her mouth, stirring (I think) one of a number of pots on the stove while sorting some rambunctious children. And she was dressed in a Wonder Woman costume, tiara and all. It captured my frustration but also my resolve. I was going to make this insane life work.

This was around the time that I was trying to find someone to take over my responsibilities at home while I went on a business trip for three weeks. Drawing up the necessary schedule, I realised with a shock that no one would want to live my life, not even for a few weeks.

Wonder Woman to the rescue, indeed.

So I was excited to learn the backstory of the comic, so to speak. I was not prepared for the strip’s ties to feminism in the decades before I was born. Nor was I prepared for the weirdness of its author.

William Moulton Marston, Harvard graduate and psychologist, grew up as a pampered prince in a family full of women and encountered feminism and suffragette movement as a young man. His wife, Sadie Holloway, a graduate of Mount Holyoke, was also apparently committed to women’s rights. However, she did—under protest—allow Marston to change her name to Betty because he didn’t like the name Sadie.

And that is the thin part of the wedge that gradually pries the family away from a traditional American family life, this seemingly irrational acquiescence to Marston’s whims. Marston, who believed a matriarchy was the ideal structure for society, actually lived like a storybook pasha. Even more surprising was that he didn’t hesitate to feature his kinks in the comic strips he wrote.

The delight of the book for me is the way Lepore juxtaposes panels from the strips with photographs and anecdotes, binding the real lives she is describing to the stories that made their way into comic books and newspapers. There is much here as well about American culture: the rise of comics, the emergence of psychological testing, the beginnings of censorship. It is all delivered in pleasing prose and backed by extensive endnotes.

As with so many of the achievements of the early twentieth-century attributed solely to men, one can’t help wondering how much of a role the women in his life actually played in the creation of this popular comic. These women included not just his wife, but also Marjorie Wilkes Huntley, whom Marston met in 1918 while in the Army, and Olive Byrne, niece of Margaret Sanger and one of his students. Lepore finds evidence of collaboration in both his psychological works and the comics, though the extent of the women’s input in the latter is unclear.

Lepore also describes Wonder Woman as a link between the first and second waves of the feminist movement in the U.S., between the suffragettes of the early twentieth-century and the feminists of the 1960s and 1970s, who concentrated on the connection between cultural and political inequalities. “Link” seems overstated to me, but the comic certainly kept alive the idea that a woman could take an active role in what was then still a man’s world. The factual stories about Wonder Women of History inserted into the comic books in the 1940s prefigured women’s history.

After reading this book, I find myself even more committed to my invisible friend. I know a superhero will not swoop in and save me. But even my distaste for her creator cannot make me give up Wonder Woman, my first role model. She helped me believe in my capacity for physical strength in the face of everything in my world telling me I was weak. She helped give me the confidence to work in what was then a male-dominated industry. Wonder Woman never modeled a domestic life, but for that I had that cartoon of a sloppy, disorganised Wonder Woman powering through in spite of everything.

What role model did you encounter in your youth who still influences you today?

One thought on “The Secret History of Wonder Woman, by Jill Lepore

  1. Only in hindsight have I come to see the role Wonder Woman played in the formation of my writing ideas. I’m off to order Lepore’s book. And I’m looking forward to seeing her on the big screen in ’17. Thanks for this, Barbara!

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