The Freaky, Fabulous, Feminist 'Secret History' Of Wonder Woman
Group sex parties. Polygamy. Bondage. What could such things have to do with Wonder Woman? Fortunately, there's no connection between those titillating concepts and the famous Amazon — certainly not in Jill Lepore's new book.
Just kidding! In fact, The Secret History of Wonder Woman relates a tale so improbable, so juicy, it'll have you saying, "Merciful Minerva!" It turns out that decades of rumors were true: The red-white-and-blue heroine, conceived during World War II, had a decidedly bohemian progenitor.
For one thing, it was no accident that Wonder Woman got chained up in every episode. Creator William Moulton Marston actually fought to depict her that way. He also led a highly unusual lifestyle, living with and fathering children by two women at once. And the sex parties? Yep. In the mid-1920s he, his wife and two of his lovers participated in a "cult of female sexual power" organized by his aunt.
It's all in Lepore's book, an astonishingly thorough investigation of the man behind the world's most popular female superhero. There's more, too — such as the facts that Marston invented the lie detector and that his longtime lover, Olive Byrne, was the niece of famed birth control crusader Margaret Sanger.
This relationship might seem to pale beside Lepore's more primal revelations, but in fact Marston's connection with one of the century's most famous feminists had a profound impact on one of the world's most famous (fictional) women. "Marston's Wonder Woman was a Progressive Era feminist," Lepore notes.
Marston had been a committed feminist for decades by the time he created Wonder Woman in 1941. He'd been exposed to the women's suffrage movement while in college, and Sadie Holloway, whom he married in 1915, was "something of a revolutionary," Lepore writes. 25 years later, Marston's determination to depict Wonder Woman in chains was partly inspired by women's suffrage imagery. (He had a rather forced argument for why the chains actually represented liberation.) Wonder Woman's first artist, Harry G. Peter, had himself once drawn suffrage cartoons.
Without fail, Marston sought to make Wonder Woman an icon of a new, triumphant phase of female rule in human history. Like the suffragists, he believed women were inherently more peaceful and benevolent than men, and in 1937 he convened a press conference to predict that women would one day rule the world.
"Women have twice the emotional development, the ability for love, than man has," he told The Washington Post. "As they develop as much ability for worldly success as they already have ability for love, they will clearly come to rule business and the nation and the world."
This vision of womanhood was shaped by both Holloway and Byrne. Byrne wore a pair of bracelets as a symbol of her and Marston's love; he gave a similar pair to Wonder Woman. Byrne's thick silver bands are visible in many of the photos Lepore has unearthed.
It would be a crime worthy of an archvillain to fail to mention these pictures. Lepore has assembled a vast trove of images and deploys them cunningly. Besides a hefty full-color section of Wonder Woman art in the middle, there are dozens of black-and-white pictures scattered throughout the text. Many of these are panels from Marston's comics that mirror events in his own life. Combined with Lepore's zippy prose, it all makes for a supremely engaging reading experience.
Many of the photos Lepore collected depict the Marston family's happy, if unconventional home life. That suffered a drastic rupture with Marston's death, in 1947, at age 54. So did his vision of Wonder Woman.
Marston's publishers ignored Holloway's attempts to preserve her husband's work in the form he intended. Handed over to a new writer, the Amazon princess started to pay more attention to traditional women's roles. She became a babysitter and a fashion model and was depicted offering advice to the lovelorn.
Meanwhile, in the real world, Holloway and Byrne's unconventional alliance continued through the decades. Lepore relates one amazing anecdote in which, informed that Wonder Woman was to grace the inaugural issue of Ms. magazine, Holloway descended on the editorial offices and lectured the newbie feminists. "I told them I was 100% with them and to 'Charge ahead!'" she wrote in a letter.
The letter's recipient? Another of Marston's former lovers, 82-year-old Marjorie Wilkes Huntley. Salacious? Maybe. Or maybe the women around Marston, creator of the greatest female superhero of all time, knew something special about the power of love.
Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Salon.com.
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