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Cover for The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore, showing a vintage comic picture of Wonder Woman

A riveting work of historical detection revealing that the origin of one of the world’s most iconic superheroes hides within it a fascinating family story—and a crucial history of twentieth-century feminism

Wonder Woman, created in 1941, is the most popular female superhero of all time. Aside from Superman and Batman, no superhero has lasted as long or commanded so vast and wildly passionate a following. Like every other superhero, Wonder Woman has a secret identity. Unlike every other superhero, she has also had a secret history. Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore has uncovered an astonishing trove of documents, including the never-before-seen private papers of William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman’s creator.
The Secret History of Wonder Woman is a tour de force of intellectual and cultural history. Wonder Woman, Lepore argues, is the missing link in the history of the struggle for women’s rights—a chain of events that begins with the women’s suffrage campaigns of the early 1900s and ends with the troubled place of feminism a century later.

Wonder Woman has been fighting for women’s rights for a very long time, battles hard fought but never won. This is the story of her origins—the stuff of wonders, and of lies.
Before I start telling you about Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman, I need to tell you a little bit about myself: my history as a reader has undoubtedly influenced my experience with this book, and so it seems reasonable to talk about it. I know very little about Wonder Woman. I've always known of her, of course — like Lepore says, she's as well-known as Superman or Batman — but my only memory of encountering her firsthand is a relatively recent one. During my time studying abroad as an undergraduate, I took a class called "Classics and Popular Culture", and in one of the lectures the professor showed us an episode of the 1970s animated Super Friends series featuring Wonder Woman. We were looking at Wonder Woman because of her links to classical mythology, and I remember being intrigued enough that I made a mental note to investigate the character further. Sadly that has yet to happen.

I tell you this because it's possible that a consummate Wonder Woman fan might have felt like they were reading an entirely different book. Perhaps a detailed knowledge of the character would have made it feel less jumbled? Perhaps the context I was missing would have brought the different strands of the book together? Sadly for me The Secret History of Wonder Woman fell short, largely because it was heavier on the biography than on the cultural history. I was definitely interested in learning about the socio-cultural climate that gave rise to Wonder Woman and in the stories of women who fought for gender equality; less so in the details of her creator William Moulton Marston’s life. Possibly I’m too much of a post-structuralist to care: the author is dead and all that. I like analyzing works for their links to wider social and cultural trends, of course, but when the discussion veers to creative intent, it tends to lose me.

Perhaps I should explain what the title “The Secret History of Wonder Woman” refers to: what Lepore uncovered through her research was that William Moulton Marston lived in what we would now probably call a polyamorous family arrangement. His household consisted of himself; his wife Elizabeth Holloway; Olive Byrne, a former student he became romantically involved with; and the children he had with both women. This domestic set-up would be socially stigmatised even now, so you can imagine what would happen if it were known in the first half of the twentieth century. So the three kept it a secret: Olive Byrne claimed to be a widow and told her children their father had died, plus the Marstons often referred to her as a “housekeeper”. There’s no knowing whether Holloway and Byrne were also romantically linked, but the two women obviously regarded each other as family: they carried on living together for decades after Marston died, and by the time they passed away they had formed a household for over sixty years.

I’m always interested in stories about what it’s like not to have the everyday stuff of your life be socially recognised; this is not, of course, what The Secret History of Wonder Woman is mainly about, but it did explore that question in an oblique sort of way. I’m also very much interested in women’s experiences within non-monogamous setups. Very often the stories that reach us are about women who are exploited in polygamous arrangements; these stories are important and worth telling, but I also like hearing about women who approach non-monogamy on their own terms. To be clear, Lepore doesn’t argue that Holloway and Byrne do the former or the latter. We learn about the two women’s growing intimacy and how they helped each other manage their professional and family lives; but we also learn that Marston initially told Holloway that if she wasn’t happy with Byrne moving in with them he would leave her. And then there’s this:
The kids read the comics. Holloway earned the money. Huntley burned incense in the attic. Olive took care of everyone, stealing time to write for Family Circle. And William Moulton Marston, the last of the Moultons of Moulton Castle, the lie detector who declared feminine rule a fact, was petted and indulged. He’d fume and he’d storm and he’d holler, and the women would whisper to the children, “It’s best to ignore him.”

The simple fact that he was a man meant that Marston entered his relationships from a position of privilege: double-standards were real then as they are now, and women always had more to lose. What Lepore does argue is that all the secrecy about their family arrangements and the need to obfuscate the real degree of intimacy between Marston, Holloway and Byrne lead to an erasure of the two women’s contributions to the creation of Wonder Woman, and therefore of the real extent of the character’s feminist origins. This erasure, she goes on to say, has distorted our understanding of feminism as a continuous struggle to this day.

I’ll return to this argument in a moment — before, I want to tell you about two other ladies who occupy large chunks of the book. Olive Byrne was Ethel Byrne’s daughter, which makes her Margaret Sanger’s niece. Lepore tells us in detail about Sanger’s relationship with her sister, who went on hunger strike and nearly died in the name of women’s access to contraception, and about the work the two embarked on. Despite my overall feelings that The Secret History of Wonder Woman fails to add up to a cohesive whole, I found these sections fascinating. I like social history and of course feminist history; chances I wouldn’t eat up these chapters were slim. They made me desperately want to read Jean H. Baker’s Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion. I read a great biography of Marie Stopes a few years ago, but I know very little about the early fight for reproductive rights across the pond. Lepore’s account was extremely interesting and it made me want to learn more.

It was also great to learn about how some of the early Wonder Woman plots were influenced by feminist utopian novels of the early twentieth century. I’ve read Herland, which I found fascinating and revealing even if full of problems, and I’m now very curious to pick up Angel Island by suffragist Inez Haynes Irwin, a feminist science fiction novel from 1914 (apparently there's an edition with an introduction by Ursula Le Guin. WANT).

These writers and activists were women Marston knew — their work was all around him, and it seems reasonable to assume this played a direct role in his decision to create an explicitly feminist superhero. Lepore acknowledges that Marston was a complicated man, as capable of supporting women’s suffrage as of saying ridiculous things such as “the normal woman needs and desires children”, but I think his failings and contradictions have little bearing on the feminist legacy of the character he created. I’m far less interested in the question “was Marston a feminist?” than I am in the feminist context of Wonder Woman, and especially in the fact that she’s resonated with plenty of women everywhere for decades. It’s perfectly possible to find a character meaningful and relevant to feminism even if her creator and some of her stories are flawed.

To return to the main argument of the book, I have to say it took me until the epilogue to truly make sense of Lepore's thesis. She tells us in her introduction that,
Wonder Woman isn’t only an Amazonian princess with badass boots. She’s the missing link in a chain of events that begins with the woman suffrage campaigns of the 1910s and ends with the troubled place of feminism fully a century later. Feminism made Wonder Woman. And then Wonder Woman remade feminism, which hasn’t always been good for feminism. Superheroes are excellent at clobbering people; at fighting for equality, they’re hobbled by the fact that they’re supposed to be better than everyone else.

Ms Magazine cover featuring Wonder Woman and saying Wonder Woman for President

As I read on, I kept wondering what, exactly, was meant by “missing link”. Then I got to the epilogue, which tells us movingly about how Elizabeth Marston visited the offices of Ms. magazine when she was nearly eighty to help them prepare the now classic “Wonder Woman for President” cover feature. Here’s how Lepore describes it:
"I’m Elizabeth Marston and I know all about Wonder Woman," she said when she charged into the offices of Ms. magazine in New York in the spring of 1972. She was nearly eighty years old, pale as paper, thin as bone and hard as flint. In Virginia, where she was living with Olive Byrne, who was sixty-eight, she’d gotten a letter from an editor at Ms. telling her that the magazine was planning to run a cover story about Wonder Woman in its first regular issue. Holloway, as unstoppable as ever, flew to New York. She pored over the text; she peered at the art. She met the magazine’s staff. "All were on the young side, very much in earnest," she reported to Marjorie Wilkes Huntley, in a breathless letter. "I told them I was 100% with them in what they are trying to do and to ‘charge ahead!’ " Huntley, thrilled, rushed to send in a money order for a subscription, signing herself, at the age of eighty-two, "Marjorie Wilkes Huntley (Ms.)."

Of course I was affected by this image of one generation of women passing the metaphorical torch to another — I love hearing about women supporting other women; I love acknowledgements of the continuity of our fight for the right to be fully human and of the debt we owe to those who came before us. It’s because of their efforts that we’re allowed to go one step further. However (and part of me hates saying this), I couldn’t shake the feeling that Lepore came dangerously close to overstating her case, and in doing so contributed to the very erasure she’s arguing against. The book’s central thesis is best expressed in passages such as this:
In the popular imagination, the suffrage campaign, from 1848 to 1920, was the "first wave" of the women’s movement, and women’s liberation, in the 1960s and 1970s, was the "second wave." In between, the thinking goes, the waters were still. But there was plenty of feminist agitation in the 1940s: in the pages of Wonder Woman.
The secret history of Wonder Woman stayed secret. That secrecy had consequences. It led to a distortion not only of Wonder Woman but also of the course of women’s history and the struggle for equal rights. Wonder Woman didn’t begin in 1941 when William Moulton Marston turned in his first script to Sheldon Mayer. Wonder Woman began on a winter day in 1904 when Margaret Sanger dug Olive Byrne out of a snowbank. The fight for women’s rights hasn’t come in waves. Wonder Woman, one of the most important superheroes of the 1940s, was the product of the suffragist, feminist, and birth control movements of the 1900s and 1910s and became a source of the women’s liberation and feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s. The fight for women’s rights has been a river, wending.

I agree that the waves metaphor is perhaps not the most helpful way to make sense of the history of feminism, and I also certainly agree that the fight for gender equality “has been a river, wending”. But it’s exactly because I believe this that I wish Lepore had written something like, “one of the places where feminist agitation could be found in the 1940s was in the pages of Wonder Woman” instead. Perhaps I shouldn’t be taking this kind of dramatic overstatement quite so literally: I’m sure The Secret History of Wonder Woman doesn’t actually mean to argue that understanding Wonder Woman is the key to straightening out our understanding of the fight for gender equality. It’s an important piece of the puzzle, of course, but one among many. But, again, it’s exactly because there are so many problems with how the history of feminism has been told that I wish this had been acknowledged explicitly. It’s amazing that Wonder Woman comics told overtly feminist stories in the 1940s, just like it’s amazing that in every historical period there are people who go against the grain of society and fight for progress. Wonder Woman wasn’t alone even at a time when it seemed that feminism was dormant, and I’d have loved to see more nods to the people she fought side by side with. And despite everything I said above about appreciating the creation even when the creator is an imperfect person (as most of us are), it makes me uneasy to overstate the feminist contributions of a man like Marston, even if his work was very much the result of the uncredited contributions of women. There were women fighting for equality in the 1940s outside of Marston's circle, and they were crucial to the “wending river” Lepore describes. I didn't expect them to be the focus of the book, of course, but a nod in their direction would have been nice.

In sum, The Secret History of Wonder Woman was a mixed bag for me, but it certainly got me interested in learning more about the history of early American feminism, feminist comics, and of course Wonder Woman herself. What do you think I should read next?


Date: 2014-11-15 03:41 am (UTC)
chaila: by me (wonder woman - manpain)
From: [personal profile] chaila
So this is really interesting to me, though I've not read the book yet. My superficial reaction to this book is, well, a little dismissive. Wonder Woman is the key to understanding why the current feminist movement is troubled, really? Perhaps I'm misunderstanding the thesis, but I'm pretty sure the creation of Wonder Woman is actually proof that the feminist movement in 1940 was *already* troubled and complex. Margaret Sanger is a hero in the fight for birth control, but she was also a racist who supported eugenics! Early feminists wanted to earn rights at the expense of black men. The feminism in early Wonder Woman is questionable to say the least, rooted as it in in ideas of men's loving submission to women, who are superior, and Wonder Woman was never far from her boyfriend. And surprise, the creator of this feminist character exploited his privilege and appears to have profited from the uncredited labor of his female partners. I'm shocked! I think from a biographical perspective, probably all of this is interesting--particularly, perhaps, for the queer history elements--but to try to tie all that into some larger point about feminism over the decades seems a difficult exercise to me.

Selfishly, I'm also weirdly tired of this new fascination with Marston. This is the third book in as many years in that vein. (See also Tim Hanley's and Noah Berlatsky's upcoming). This bugs me for exactly the reasons you say: I don't really see it as all that relevant to why she has resonated (or not) with women across the decades, or to what the character means now. But at least Lepore's book seems to be trying to reclaim women's contributions, instead of analyzing Marston's psyche?

It seems to me that "Wonder Woman" is almost metaphorical in Lepore's thesis? Like, Wonder Woman obviously did not remake feminism, but perhaps some of the ideals that Wonder Woman is supposed to represent (which were only sometimes in the actual stories) did? And it's certainly true that that the character often reflected the remakings of feminism, both good and bad? But that's just saying that...feminism remade feminism. Which, well, obviously? Like it seems like there are two ideas here: Marston, Holloway and Byrne and their biographies and histories, and the actual cultural and feminist relevance of the character herself. And this book focuses on the first, which is fine, but is pretending to have something to say about the second, which is a stretch?

I should read the book before having so many reactions probably, oh well! :)

Edited Date: 2014-11-15 03:41 am (UTC)

Re: tl;dr!

Date: 2014-11-15 07:06 pm (UTC)
chaila: by me (wonder woman - bulletproof)
From: [personal profile] chaila
I probably should note that this book and my post this week about Wonder Woman are, to me, almost about entirely different versions of the character? I've only read a handful of things from the 40s era, but they seemed (to me) to bear little relation to the Diana I know from the comics I've read. Wonder Woman had a pretty significant "reboot" in the late 80s, and most of the comics now are based on elements of those stories, and pretty much all the comics I've read are post-1980s. Of course, some things do relate back to her 40s origin or there will be an occasional story that draws on the original character elements/style/tone, but those are sort of historical facts, rather than aspects of the character with continuing resonance. If that makes sense?

Basically, Wonder Woman in the comics from the last 20 years is a character I doubt Marston would recognize much of. Which is largely why I'm a bit wary of the attempts to draw a line from 40s Wonder Woman to current feminism, when the character herself has continued to change and evolve so, so much.
Edited Date: 2014-11-15 07:06 pm (UTC)

Re: tl;dr!

Date: 2014-11-16 04:31 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] readingtheend.pip.verisignlabs.com
I'm interested in this book, but I've been feeling that it would suit me better as an article than as a book. It's one of those fascinating pieces of history that works well as longform journalism, when in book form I tend to get bored midway through and move on to something else. Particularly in this case, where I'm very unfamiliar with the character herself.

Re: tl;dr!

Date: 2014-11-16 10:22 pm (UTC)
chaila: by me (wonder woman - bulletproof)
From: [personal profile] chaila
If it helps, the author actually wrote this article in The New Yorker on a similar subject!

Date: 2014-11-15 09:20 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] susanhatedliterature.net
I've mentioned fairly recently here on Lady Business that I'm not familiar with Wonder Woman as a character. But this is still a really interesting post.
I'd love if some MOOC did a course on WW or even the big three (Supes, Bat & WW) with some sort of an overview of their growth and development, because I think it'd make for a fascinating experience. And there is so much out there that I'd like that bit of guidance.

I'm not sure if I'll look for this book, it sounds interesting, but more so if you have some background with WW, so maybe I'll investigate her as a comic first and then revisit.

Date: 2014-11-15 01:21 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] theliteraryomnivore.wordpress.com
Fantastic review. Wonder Woman as a feminist symbol is always fascinating to me, especially in the context of seventies feminism and her own lack of mainstream pop cultural legacy. There's a stage play that deals with the origin of Wonder Woman called Lasso of Truth that may or may not be based on this book.

Angel Island sounds intriguing. Off to the Google box!

Date: 2014-11-15 06:34 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] emeraldcity
There was a Smithsonian article about this that gave me the basics...not sure I'm up for reading a whole book (I was never a comics reader either). But I appreciate the review for its summary of the important points.
I'm interested in Inez Haynes Irwin because I DID grow up reading her Maida series -- I had no idea she was a feminist activist. The series is not very progressive by today's standards -- the girls tend to be contentedly cooking and cleaning and the boys working outside -- but there's a passage that was probably a bit radical in the day, where the girls go on strike because the boys don't appreciate them. I will definitely try to find Angel Island; anything approved by Ursula K. LeGuin is sure to be worthwhile.

read next

Date: 2017-07-26 09:01 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
caliban and the witch ... again a rough thesis but interesting! ladybassmonkey


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