Jill Lepore: The Secret History of Wonder Woman (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), 448 pages.
By Bryn Upton
The first female superhero arrived at the beginning of US involvement in World War II and stood astride the intersection of first wave feminism, Greek mythology, popular psychology, and kink. An Amazon who left paradise to save one man, Wonder Woman instead saved America from the bonds of patriarchy in a red bustier, blue shorts, a gold tiara, metal bracelets, and knee-high red boots. She had extraordinary powers, with telling limitations: her bracelets stopped bullets, her lasso forced people to tell the truth, but if a man bound her at her bracelets, she lost her powers. For more than seventy years she has captured imaginations—appearing in 4,756 comic book issues, an eponymous television show, and a slate of novels, animated cartoons, and video games—but what do we really know about Wonder Woman? In The Secret history of Wonder Woman, Jill Lepore, Professor of American History at Harvard University, contends that we cannot understand Wonder Woman without understanding the man—and women—behind her. Lepore states that the key to Wonder Woman lies in understanding the unique set of feminist influences upon her creation. “Feminism made Wonder Woman,” she writes. “And then Wonder Woman remade feminism…”*
While previous books on Wonder Woman focused primarily on the comics themselves, Lepore explores the ideas behind those scripts and images. Delving into the private lives of Wonder Woman’s creator William Marston, his wife, Betty, and their mistress, Olive Byrne, she constructs an intellectual biography of a fictional character. Through archival material, periodicals, private letters, and interviews with Marston’s children, Lepore provides an intimate portrait of Marston and the women in his life, all of who offered up pieces of Wonder Woman’s character. Withholding moral judgment, Lepore traces a nuanced connection between Marston’s private life and the comic he created.
Wonder Woman was perhaps Marston’s greatest achievement. A Harvard educated psychologist with both a J.D. and a Ph.D., he was more self-promoter than scholar, and often had trouble holding a job. For much of his adult life, he lived with both his wife, Elizabeth Holloway “Betty” Marston, and his lover Olive, the daughter of birth control pioneer Ethel Byrne. Marston had two children by Betty and two by Olive. Although Betty initially resisted the idea of living with another woman, she soon realized that this compromise allowed her to have the career she wanted without sacrificing her family. In this arrangement, she and Marston worked, while Olive stayed home and raised the kids. For much of the 1930s, Betty was the family’s primary breadwinner. Marston continued to sleep with both women, and, occasionally, with Marjorie Wilkes Huntley who lived in the home from time to time. Until adulthood the children remained oblivious to the true nature of their heterodox family. Marston’s non-traditional family, along with his ideas about women’s strength and leadership potential, also well outside of the mainstream, appeared in one way or another on the pages of the Wonder Woman comic books of the 1940s. In scripting Wonder Woman, then, Marston attempted to popularize his own ideas about women and their role in society.
In the decades between the passage of the 19th Amendment and World War II, Marston went beyond advocating women’s equality, and actively championing women’s rule. Fully expecting a woman president before mid-century, he sculpted Wonder Woman as a prototype for women’s liberation from political and social subjugation and a model for their rightful role in international leadership. Wonder Woman went well beyond Rosie the Riveter or other pro-woman icons of the era, allowing Lepore to touch upon gender construction in her analysis. Rejecting traditional gender roles, Wonder Woman broke through the bonds of patriarchy. In fact, at some point in every comic, she literally breaks free from one kind of bond or another, often leading other women to some real or metaphorical autonomy.
At initial publication, Wonder Woman’s perpetual bondage drew the most criticism and continues to generate controversy because of its presumed connection with Marston’s bondage fetish. Although Lepore acknowledges that William, Betty, and Olive occasionally joined Marjorie Huntley for bondage sex parties, she calls the pre-eminence of the fetish-reading into question. Unlike Huntley and their hostess Carolyn Marston Keatley—who engaged in sexual dominance and submission, as well as love-binding —the Marstons and Olive never fully embraced those views. Instead, Lepore draws out the women’s rights and suffragist influences on Marston’s work, all of which often employed images of women breaking through bonds or chains. In making this connection, Lepore plausibly transfers Wonder Woman’s bondage from passive fetish-object to self-fulfilling agent, and pushes past a merely biographical reading to one that also draws on the methodology of more traditional intellectual histories.
Secret History thrives when Lepore focuses on the dynamic women who supported Marston’s work with their own and who become connected through him. Betty and Olive graduated college in a time when women rarely did; Betty even obtained a Master’s degree. After Olive began writing a column for Family Circle, which often served as a way to promote Marston and his ideology, both she and Betty made a living as writers, also unusual for women in this period. Functioning both as a family and as a kind of think-tank for promoting their brand of feminism, their ideas and lives transferred to the pages of Wonder Woman. This leaves the reader pondering if Marston was ultimately deceiving himself and others, claiming radical feminism while living off of one woman, being looked after by another, and sleeping with both (as well as a third). Lepore allows Marston to be sincere in his beliefs about women while living this life; an example, he is not merely living off Betty, he encourages her work and does not appear threatened by her greater financial success. There appears to be a kind of equality in each of these relationships.
Lepore make a convincing case for the essential role these women played in bringing Wonder Woman to life, she also demonstrates that taking Marston (and Wonder Woman) out of their context promotes an artificial and disingenuous framework for reading the text or understanding the imagery. Once she draws out Marston’s intellectually integrated home life, she reveals the difficulty in separating Betty, William, and Olive’s contributions, as they all shared ideas, and edited one another’s work. To really tell the whole story of Wonder Woman, then, requires a similarly integrated approach to the sources that formed her.
Following subjects lead, Lepore breaks the boundaries between personal and professional, private and public, social and intellectual. In writing an intellectual biography of one of the most enduring characters of the twentieth century, Lepore also challenges the demarcation lines between intellectual history and popular culture. In doing so, she uncovers a lost moment in the history of feminist thought wearing a gold tiara and knee-high red boots.
Bryn Upton is Associate Professor of History at McDaniel College, and author of Hollywood and the End of the Cold War: Signs of Cinematic Change (Rowman Littlefield, 2014).