Of all the unlikely confluences you might stumble over in life, here’s a set: what do Margaret Sanger, lie detectors, and superheroes have in common?
If you answered “Wonder Woman!” you would be correct. And if you could answer that before Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman came out, you would be in rare company knowing that.
Wonder Woman was the creation of one William Moulton Marston, of the Massachussetts Marstons. If that familial pedigree escapes you, don’t feel bad, you didn’t miss it in history class. The Marstons had come down a ways from their 19th Century heights, enough so that William was forced to apply for grants to finish his degree at Harvard in 1915 in psychology (Ph.D. earned in 1921).
Psychology was still a relatively “new” science and Harvard was in the vanguard. Marston attached himself to the recently founded Harvard Psychological Laboratory and eventually ended up running it. But only for a short while. And that career curve would follow him the rest of his life.
Marston emerges in the pages of Lepore’s book as a brilliant man-child who just couldn’t seem to make a success that lasted of anything. It becomes evident as his story unfolds that he simply confused personal fame with genuine success and made a series of bad calls with regards to where and how to apply his energies. He was a self-promoter but when it came to backing up his claims he was lacking in substance. He “invented” the lie detector and established it as a viable methodology and then ruined its use in court for decades through sloppy application and shoddy research. Not only that, but the court case which apparently set the precedent for the exclusion of lie detector results from court rooms cast a pall on him personally, a circumstance he never quite recovered from. If not for the three women he eventually lived with, it seems likely he would have been indigent.
That is where the story takes a turn toward the culturally amazing. Marston was a hardcore feminist, of the “old school” that marched and advocated and disrupted (although being a man this rarely led to any inconvenience for him). He seems to have been genuinely dedicated to the idea of equality for women and also a devotee of free love, a parallel movement to the equal rights movement that led to considerable discord among feminists. He met and eventually married Elizabeth Holloway, who shared his philosophy. She earned a law degree from Boston University and of the two possessed the discipline to apply herself to her chosen tasks, a trait Marston apparently lacked. Eventually, Holloway (who kept her maiden name) was the principle breadwinner in the house, which grew to include Marjorie WIlkes Huntley, a woman he met while doing work for the Army under Robert Yerkes, and then later Olive Byrne, who was Margaret Sanger’s niece.
At a time when “alternate lifestyles” could land you in prison, this was, to say the least, unorthodox. Marston apparently possessed enormous personal charmisma and none of the women ever left him. After his death, the three more or less remained together almost until death. Byrne and Holloway each bore two of Marston’s four children, but Byrne claimed to be a widowed cousin and refused to tell her own children that she was their mother.
How did all this produce one of the most well-known superheroes of all time?
Lepore, who obtained access to archives and letters never before made public, has detailed this remarkable story with clarity, humor, and insight. Wonder Woman is probably one of the most rigorously constructed superheroes of the Golden Age of comics. Marston did not see her as entertainment but as a tool for social propaganda, namely to advance the cause of equal rights for women. In fact, Marston thought women should be in charge. His Wonder Woman was no one’s servant and the first couple of years of her publication reads like an indictment of everything broken in society’s attitude toward women.
DC Comics was in a bit of a bind. They were by and large uncomfortable with the feminist “messaging” but Wonder Woman, almost from the first issue, was one of the three most popular superheroes of all time, right behind Batman and Superman. They were making too much money to just kill her off. But once Marston lost control of the comic (due to illness, first polio then cancer) the editor put in charge seemed to do everything he could to declaw this difficult woman. That she survived to once again be the powerful symbol of womanhood is remarkable, but it also goes some way to explain the bizarre manifestation of the Seventies TV show. Comparing the Lynda Carter characterization to the forthcoming Gal Gadot realization shows a marked difference in attitude and approach.
The holdovers from the Silver Age era in Carter’s look, while “true” to the traditional Wonder Woman, nevertheless supported the highly sexualized aspect of the character, while the new look shows the underlying mythology that was originally loaded into the construct, that of a warrior, and Amazon, something out of the bloodier, martial past of the ancient Greeks.
Lepore’s book examines the period as much as the principles and shows us the problematic world in which suffrage, feminism, and tradition often came into conflict. The urgency to “put Wonder Woman in her place” especially after WWII played out in the comics in often tragicomic ways. Wonder Woman becomes a full-fledged member of the Justice League only to be made the secretary.
Some of this may seem silly to modern readers. Why couldn’t people just get over their prejudices? Wasn’t it obvious, etc etc.? Maybe. And maybe that it was obvious was part of the problem. Justice often conflicts with privilege, ethics with desire, and change is never welcome to the fearful.
Marston himself, as a human being, seems by turns charming and repulsive. Art rarely emerges from pristine sources, unalloyed with the questionable. But then, Marston probably did not see himself as an artist or Wonder Woman as a work of art. He had causes to pursue, beliefs to validate, and…well, bills to pay.
Lest anyone believe that Wonder Woman was all Marston’s invention, though, Lepore makes it abundantly clear that the women around him contributed just as much if not more and served in many ways as models upon which he based the character.
The Secret History of Wonder Woman is a fascinating look at a time in America and an aspect of culture that for too long was underappreciated. It is a serious and thorough examination of popular mythology and from whence many of our modern concepts came. In these times when women are once more required to defend their rights and the very idea of equality, it might be useful to see how and in what ways this struggle has been going on for a long time and under some of the most unexpected banners in some of the most unusual ways.