Doug: It's a BAB Book Review today, kids -- and courtesy of Colin Bray.
‘The Secret History of Wonder Woman’ by Jill Lepore
Colin Bray: I read this book less as a collector of Wonder Woman comics and more through a fascination with feminist history. Which is just as well because this book is less a history of Wonder Woman than a revelatory account of her roots in the early 20th Century feminist and bohemian movements.
These roots are made more complex for being channeled through the rather unusual mind of William Moulton Marston.
The author, Jill Lepore, is a Harvard academic and staff writer at The New Yorker. And this book is clearly the result of a huge amount of research, much of it using primary sources. Lepore is the first person to have studied and written from the Marston personal diaries and family archive, and as a result the book feels genuinely fresh, like we are opening a new window onto the history of the 20th century. The other dominant impression (and irony) from the book is that the psychologist inventor of the lie detector surrounded himself with so many lies and obfuscation.
How does Lepore demonstrate that Wonder Woman is inseparably entwined with feminist history and theory?
· In 1911, Harvard (where Marston studied) was engulfed with debates about women’s suffrage – and Marston attended a sell-out lecture by Emmeline Pankhurst.
· Olive Byrne, one of the three women in Marston’s life, was the niece of Margaret Sanger (America’s foremost birth control campaigner) and daughter of Ethel Byrne (the first early feminist to be force-fed while on hunger strike).
· Marston’s wife, Sadie Holloway, was herself a feminist with a prominent career including a senior editorial position on the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
· As can be seen below, the early feminist cartoonist Lou Rogers was an influence, not just on Marston but on Harry Peter, the artist on the Marston Wonder Woman stories - who himself was an early advocate for women’s rights.
· And just one of many such smaller details - Wonder Woman’s bracelets are based on Olive Byrne’s bracelets which were probably a gift from Marston in lieu of a wedding ring (because he was already married to Holloway).
Marston’s personal and family arrangements were particularly complex, which was the cause of much of the secrecy and lies in his life. So too the paradox (contradiction?) of his genuinely progressive view of women and his parallel espousal of free love and bondage. Lepore is clear on these issues and their relationship to Wonder Woman without being at all sensationalistic.
I came away from the book feeling that Marston was a hugely flawed man, only partially redeemed by his progressive views. Any possible redemption is based on the fact he consistently stood by his personal philosophy, and his original Wonder Woman stories were genuinely radical for their time. But he was not an admirable man, ultimately a huckster and self-propagandist who got by with an excess of self-regard and charisma.
The women in his life are as thoroughly explored (perhaps more so) as Marston himself, and the book contains lengthy passages exploring their dilemmas, not only within their personal context but also how these intelligent and educated women continued to balance the demands of family, personal ambition and a bohemian lifestyle with its own huge emotional cost.
Fascinating and informative as this book is, it is not a simple history of Wonder Woman outside of her political and social context. If you come to this expecting to find out about the second appearance of the Cheetah, or how the invisible plane works, you may be disappointed. If, on the other hand, you want to understand how Wonder Woman was the previously unexplored missing link between the feminist first wave and 70s women’s liberation movement read on!