Wonder Woman

A superhero’s secret history

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Suffering Sappho! Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction.

Wonder Woman, arguably the best-loved female superhero of all time, has an origin story that stretches the imagination. In some accounts, she’s Diana, the daughter of Hippolyte, immortal queen of the Amazons, crafted from a lump of clay. In others, she has a famous father, plus superpowers, and a snazzy array of accessories—like an invisible plane, spark-shooting bracelets, and Lasso of Truth.

Anyone who has read a Wonder Woman comic book or watched the recent blockbuster starring Gal Gadot knows to suspend disbelief while enjoying Diana’s ferocious fighting moves and quest for justice. But, amazingly, the people behind the original comic book are even more unusual.

In The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Jill Lepore digs into the backstory of the comic’s creators. What she uncovers: a self-promoting pop-psychologist with a penchant for bondage, his career-minded wife and a doting lover who lives in the family home and looks after both women’s children. All three are avowed feminists with close ties to the women’s suffrage movement, and their personal and political viewpoints play out in the pages of the Wonder Woman comic they pioneered.

William Moulton Marston, who wrote under the pen name Charles Moulton, is credited with creating Wonder Woman. Marston got his PhD in Psychology in 1921 from Harvard, where he took credit for developing a systolic blood pressure test that he promoted as a lie-detector. His wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, may have actually been more heavily influential in her husband’s research than he let on. After a series of failed business attempts, Elizabeth emerged as the primary breadwinner, while Marston published a series of essays detailing his theories related to male dominance and an ideal female state of loving submission. This from a man who fervently championed women’s rights!

In 1925, while teaching at Tufts University, Marston began an affair with a student, Olive Byrne, the sophisticated niece of birth control activist Margaret Sanger. Before long, he convinced Elizabeth to allow Olive to move in with them. Their family dynamic was not traditional, to say the least. In 1942, Marston was hired on as a psychological consultant for a comic book publishing house that eventually became DC Comics. Superheroes like Superman and Batman were taking the world by storm, and Marston proposed a new model: a woman who would vanquish evil with the strength of her love.

Lepore tracks the history of Wonder Woman through the lens of the feminist movement. Though the prose is at times clunky and awkward, there is no question she has done her research. Copious endnotes and a detailed index are invaluable for readers who wish to pursue further studies of the Marstons, Wonder Woman, or the history of feminism.

Christine Perkins is the Executive Director of the Whatcom County Library System.

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