Author susses out Wonder Woman’s fascinating feminist roots
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 03/01/2015 (2892 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
There’s a reason that Wonder Woman appeared on the cover of the inaugural issue of Ms. magazine.
While it can sometimes seem as if superheroes live in an adolescently male fantasy world, where impossibly muscled he-men cavort with improbably buxom women, one of the oldest icons in comics has her roots not in male power fantasies but in the feminist movements of the early 20th century.
In The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Jill Lepore, a Harvard professor of history, New Yorker staff writer and National Book Award finalist, traces these roots through the familial and professional histories of her creator, William Moulton Marston, and the women with whom he shared his unconventional and intriguing life.
Marston himself was a larger-than-life character — a physically imposing man, an unabashed self-promoter and self-mythologizer whose upbringing as the only male heir of a pseudo-aristoratic American family seems to have imbued him with an unfailing sense of his own importance. He was, among other things, a lawyer, a psychologist, a university professor, a polyamorist, the inventor of an early version of the lie detector, an advocate of erotic bondage and submission, a screenwriter, a novelist and, finally, the creator of the most popular feminist icon of the 20th century, Wonder Woman.
As Lepore demonstrates, however, he did very little of the above without help. Throughout his life and careers, Marston was aided, influenced, and supported by two women, Elizabeth Holloway and Olive Byrne, with whom he lived for the better part of three decades and by whom he had a total of four children. While Marston flitted from vocation to vocation, Holloway worked to support and Byrne stayed home to care for their increasingly large family.
Though the unconventional arrangements of his home life don’t always seem to reflect it, Marston was strongly influenced by the suffragist movement of the late-19th and early 20th centuries, and his advocacy of women’s rights is a hallmark of his work on Wonder Woman. Issue after issue finds the hero facing down a parade of misogynist villains bent on denying women the equality they deserve.
Through her meticulous research and with a keen eye for visual and narrative correspondences, Lepore tracks down events and icons within the early history of feminism, from labour protests to propaganda posters, that provided fodder for Marston as he scripted the exploits of an Amazon princess in, as Lepore puts it, “a badass bustier.”
Her argument is supplemented further by the inclusion of a range of illustrative images drawn from personal and public archives and from the comics themselves, including 12 pages of annotated colour images that trace her argument through representative images of Wonder Woman from the 1940s to the 1972 Ms. cover.
Though he is central to the story, this is not really a book about Marston. It is a book about Holloway and, especially, Byrne, the untold heroes of Wonder Woman’s origin story. Their stories, excavated from diaries, letters and the reminiscences of their children, allow Lepore to hold Marston at arm’s length throughout, viewing his tireless self-promotion through their indulgent, if sometimes rolling, eyes.
Lepore is especially interested in teasing out the story of Byrne’s relationship with Marston. Throughout their lives together, Byrne and Marston hid the intimate nature of their relationship from the public, inventing a false father for their two children and telling family and friends that Byrne lived with Marston, Holloway, and the children as a domestic servant. It was not until they were adults that Byrne’s children, who were legally adopted by Marston and Holloway, discovered who their father was.
The erasure of Byrne from much of Marston’s public biography during his life and for years afterward comes into sharp focus in the final lines of the last chapter, in which Lepore recounts the deaths of Holloway and Byrne, who continued to live together for decades after Marston’s death in 1947. Holloway’s obituary in the New York Times credits her as the inspiration for Wonder Woman. Byrne received no obituary. Relying heavily — at times perhaps too heavily — on the recollections of Byrne’s children and and on Byrne’s unpublished writing, Lepore has set out to correct this injustice.
The weakest point of what is otherwise an engaging and insightful book is the epilogue, in which Lepore uses the history she has ably and convincingly mapped out to argue against histories of feminism that divide the movement up into discrete “waves.” It feels tacked on, an attempt to make a relatively specific historical account more broadly significant.
She needn’t have bothered. The Secret History of Wonder Woman is a spectacularly researched, immensely readable, and visually appealing history that paints a compelling portrait of the cultural and personal contexts that gave birth to one of the most enduring characters in comics.
Brandon Christopher teaches English literature, including comics, at the University of Winnipeg.
Updated on Saturday, January 3, 2015 8:27 AM CST: Formatting.