Matthew Lloyd's Reviews > The Secret History of Wonder Woman

The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore
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bookshelves: comic-books, oxford-county-library, dc, non-fiction, feminism, do-not-own-but-would-like, history

In the Introduction to Jodi Picoult's Wonder Woman, Vol. 2: Love and Murder it is said that there has never been a classic Wonder Woman story, the way Batman has Batman: The Killing Joke , Batman: The Long Halloween , and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns , and Superman has ... some good stories, somewhere, probably I guess. Love and Murder definitely isn't a classic (although it's good until the idiotic Amazons Attack! storyline kicks in), but The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore could stake a good claim to classic status. Even if I will admit to a personal bias in favour of the history of comic books over their actual content, the creation of Wonder Woman, tied up (often literally) with the women's suffrage movement, the campaign for birth control, and twentieth-century feminism in general is a fascinating story. How much of it can genuinely be described as "secret" I am less certain,* but Lepore combines elements from numerous sources, largely the archives of the Marston family, to tell a story spanning more than half a century.

The book is full of fascinating facts about twentieth century comic books and feminism, which may or may not have been "secrets", such as:

1. Olive Byrne, the lover/companion of William Moulton Marston and Elizabeth Holloway Marston, was the niece of Margaret Sanger, the birth control activist.
2. Margaret Sanger had a 'decades long' affair with H.G. Wells.
3. Six years after its foundation by Sanger in 1921, the American Birth Control League was found to be disproportionately composed of Republicans and Rotarians. Sanger was forced to resign as league president, as the membership was not interested in feminism but population control.
4. In the early 1920s, the department of Psychology at Columbia University decided to solve the problem of oversubscribed graduate student programs by encouraging women to drop out, a process so successful that it continues in many university departments to this day.
5. Betty Boop ran for president of the USA in 1932. There was much discussion about when a woman would run for President or Vice-President of the US in the 1930s; it was usually assumed that the latter would be successful first, within a decade, with the former taking about twenty years. Marston predicted that it would take the US a thousand years to become a matriarchy. In a Gallup poll of 1937, 33 percent of Americans said that they would vote for a woman for president. It looks like we'll get to see how far America has come since then in November.
6. It may not have actually been Holloway, Marston's wife, who insisted that he create a female superhero - she claimed to have always been too busy to have anything to do with Wonder Woman. Her son, however, insists that it was her idea to make "a female Superman".
7. Wonder Woman's red, white, and blue costume was inspired by the recent release of Captain America, who also wears an American flag (although Wonder Woman also wears as little as the creators could get away with).
8. The original Wonder Woman comics had a four-page spread called "The Wonder Women of History" - mini biographies of impressive historical women. As if to prove the hypothesis that the 1950s were the worst possible decade, in 1950 this feature was replaced by a series about weddings called "Marriage a la Mode". "The Wonder Women of History" should definitely be resurrected if it isn't currently in use.
9. Marston predicted 'male rights' activists in a 1943 Wonder Woman comic, where a Professor Manly founds the Man's World Party in the year 3000. He rigs the election and wins, but once he's discovered his candidate (Steve Trevor) is deposed and Diana becomes President. In this and other early Wonder Woman comics, Steve Trevor sounds like a right wanker.
10. Despite the bondage themes of early Wonder Woman comics, Marston's son Byrne was pretty certain that there was no bondage in their house - and that his mothers would never have let Marston get away with it.
11. Complaints that comic books are all about hyper-masculine white American men date back at least to the 1940s. In his book Seduction of the Innocent: The Influence of Comic Books on Today's Youth Dr Frederick Wertham even includes interviews with young Black girls complaining about the depiction of people of colour and how White kids think that all Black kids are like that. Unfortunately, the book was much more successful in propagating its horrific homophobia than its points about racism in early comics.
12. In the 1970s, Samuel R. Delany was hired to write a six-part "Women's Lib" storyline for Wonder Woman, in which she would battle a different male chauvinist each issue, building up to a defence of an abortion clinic. This last storyline was dropped, and only the first issue was published.

Lepore also reveals how tense the relationship between William Moulton Marston, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, and Olive Byrne could be. This difficulty seems like a disappointment for the modern reader, as one really hopes that one of the most famous polyamorous relationships of the twentieth century was idyllic - especially as Holloway and Byrne remained together long after Marston's death. However, it seems as if Marston might actually have been the problem. Much like the polyamory of Percy Bysshe Shelley about a century earlier, the men who wanted to be in such relationships don't seem to have quite grasped the immense social and biological difficulties facing women in that position, particularly the lack of birth control.** Sanger, of course, was working to overcome that obstacle - a perspective which many overlook due to her association with racist eugenicists, the only people with money who wanted to fund contraception. As Lou Rogers illustrated in Sanger's Birth Control Review in 1923, contraception was necessary to free women from the shackles of unwanted babies/pregnancies. Women's liberation depended (depends?) on reproductive freedom, completely denied to the Shelley's; Holloway, however, had an ingenious way to fulfil her desire for children and maintain her career: Olive Byrne, her husband's lover, could raise her children for her. Her triumph here, and elsewhere, is much more interesting than the life of the egomaniacal Marston. I found myself wishing for more of a biography of her and Byrne than of Marston's creation, Wonder Woman. But the 'threesome' is really strained when the financial burden of the family is placed entirely on one individual, as it was placed on Holloway throughout much of the 1930s.

While there is much that is fascinating in this book there is also much that I found frustrating. This frustration comes perhaps from the emphasis on Wonder Woman rather than on the human beings who created and inspired her - there is very little included about the lives of Byrne and Holloway which does not relate to Wonder Woman. Throughout much of the history Lepore ties events in the lives of Marston et al to some plot point in the early Wonder Woman comics. At first, this practice feels like an attempt to shoe-horn the eponymous superhero into the history; later on it feels more relevant, at times largely because Lepore seems more confident in the connection. The most egregious example, on pp. 107-08, is when Lepore describes an event in Boston in 1929 at which Margaret Sanger was booked to speak but was banned by authorities from doing so. Instead, Sanger appeared on stage, gagged, while a historian from Harvard. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., read her statement. Lepore adds: "Wonder Woman is gagged by villains all the time, too. But in the end, she always has her say." The attempt seems to be to tie the events of these early Wonder Woman stories to the historical events which inspired them. At times, this is successful. But the history is interesting enough without these asides, and the Wonder Woman stories aren't well enough known to really warrant such references. It's as often distracting as it is illuminating.

That being said, the final part of the history, when Marston creates and is writing Wonder Woman, is by far the most interesting and engaging. Her the literary analysis and historical storytelling come together and Lepore tells the story very effectively. Especially in the later stages, it feels a little rushed, and I felt that there was scope for a post-Marston biography of Wonder Woman up to the present day, too. It is also worth emphasising that the first two parts of the history deal with early twentieth-century feminism in an exciting and interesting way - it is only the asides to the Wonder Woman stories that they inspired which annoyed me.

Indeed, it is especially important, I feel, to reflect on Wonder Woman's beginnings in that feminism with the direction the character has taken in recent years - especially the awful decision to make Diana the daughter of Zeus instead of a woman created from clay by a woman and raised only by women. I don't have a lot of hope that her film will respect these origins, but now that her "secret history" has been revealed, perhaps I can be optimistic. Maybe she'll have returned to America to defend an abortion clinic from a bunch of thugs...?

* Lepore essentially explains why this history can be described as "secret" on pp. 293-96, right at the very end of the history. I felt that much of this last chapter could have been an introduction and the last chapter concerned a little more with the legacy of Wonder Woman, but then again I am not an editor.

** On Percy Bysshe Shelley, see Gordon, C. 2015 Romantic Outlaws.
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Reading Progress

March 5, 2016 – Shelved
March 5, 2016 – Shelved as: to-read-do-not-own
March 5, 2016 – Shelved as: comic-books
March 5, 2016 – Shelved as: oxford-county-library
March 5, 2016 – Shelved as: dc
March 5, 2016 – Shelved as: non-fiction
March 6, 2016 – Started Reading
March 12, 2016 – Shelved as: feminism
March 13, 2016 – Finished Reading
March 18, 2017 – Shelved as: do-not-own-but-would-like
May 15, 2017 – Shelved as: history

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