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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Secret History of Wonder Woman: The Invention of a Superhero in Historical Context

When I was a pre-teen I spent my allowance on comic books.  I mainly bought Superman, Batman and Legion of Superheroes.  I was interested in female superheroes, but Wonder Woman didn't have superpowers at that point.  I read Supergirl  until her story arc became centered on how aliens had victimized her at a beauty pageant.  I wanted to be inspired by a female superhero.  I felt betrayed.  So I threw up my hands and stopped reading about her.   It was Ms. Magazine that showed me what Wonder Woman had once been, and I loved the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman series.  By that time, however, I didn't read comic books.  It was the Witchblade TV series starring Yancy Butler that brought me back to comic books as an adult. I read and collected Witchblade in all its various incarnations , but I also began to read Wonder Woman regularly.  I now consider myself a fan of the Amazon from Paradise Island.  That's why I had to read and review The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore.


I watched Katha Pollitt's interview with Jill Lepore on the subject of this book on Book TV, and was fascinated by what Lepore had to say.  Now that I've read it, I still admire it as a feat of research.  She presented Wonder Woman in the context of the early 20th century feminism that inspired her creator, William Moulton Marston, and in the context of  his life and unconventional family.

Yet Lepore tells us that  Olive Byrne inspired Wonder Woman. She was an integral part of Marston's household, but this is where I part company with Lepore.  Olive Byrne may have worn the bracelets, but her lifestyle choices were not those of a superhero.  Her mother was Ethel Byrne, the sister of Margaret Sanger.  Ethel Byrne had been an activist for the cause of birth control.  She disapproved of her daughter because Olive chose a support role in Marston's life and career rather than having an independent life with her own career.  I feel that women have a right to live as they choose.  Not all women want to be heroes.

 In fact, it seems to me that Olive probably had very conventional aspirations.  She was absolutely adamant that her role in Marston's life as his lover and mother of two of his children must never become known.  She even invented a fictional husband who supposedly fathered her sons.  She must have been very uncomfortable with being one of three women in Marston's life, and would have preferred a monogamous lifestyle.  She stated that she hid the identity of their father for the sake of her sons, but this implies that she didn't feel that she could defend her life choices to her children once they were adults.  If she had been the sort of woman who inspired Wonder Woman, she wouldn't have lived a life that made her feel ashamed. 

Lepore shows us that it was a man who inspired Marston's interest in the feminist movement of his day.   His name was  George Herbert Palmer.  The 1933 article from The Harvard Crimson that I've linked calls him influential because of his "genius in teaching".  For the purposes of this review, it's most significant that he was the advisor of a student organization called the Harvard Men's League for Women's Suffrage.  This means that Marston probably wasn't the only Harvard student who was influenced by Palmer to become a supporter of  feminist causes.   When Marston married, he chose the independent-minded feminist Sadie Elizabeth Holloway who was the household's breadwinner during the Great Depression  when Marston couldn't find work.  Certainly Holloway was closer to being a superwoman type than Olive.

I've seen reviews on Goodreads which state that Marston's lifestyle, which some would now call polyamorous, showed that he wasn't really a sincere feminist.  I admit that I didn't think much of his failing to give collaborator's credit to Olive for all the work she did on his psychology book, Emotions of Normal People.  This represents a widespread problem in academia. Marston was a professor of psychology at various universities. Olive began as Marston's research assistant.  Research assistants, who aren't always women, are still rarely given credit for their work on a professor's writing projects no matter how extensively they contributed to them.  Academic writers consider this a completely acceptable practice.  The research assistants aspire to become professors who will in turn utilize the labor of their research assistants without giving them credit.

So Marston was a flawed human being, but it would have been a huge loss to many women if he hadn't created Wonder Woman.  One of the really valuable aspects of the Wonder Woman comic when Marston had creative control, was the Wonder Women of History insert.  LePore doesn't believe that Marston wrote these profiles of noteworthy historical women, but there is evidence that he selected them.  Lepore thinks that Dorothy Roubicek (later known by her married name of Woolfolk) the first woman editor at DC Comics, was the one who wrote the text for Wonder Women of History. Marston did write the story of how Wonder Woman took a boy back in time to witness the Celtic Warrior  Woman Boadicea's  revolt against the Romans which was published in 1946.  It wasn't Marston who robbed Wonder Woman of her powers. It was Denny O'Neill who was responsible for this change in 1968. 

I personally am grateful to Marston for giving us Wonder Woman even though he can't be considered a feminist in modern terms, and Lepore is the ideal historian to present Marston to us with all his eccentricities intact.  In The Secret History of Wonder Woman William Moulton Marston and the women of his household live for us again.



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