Books

Wonder Woman is revealed … or at least her odd creator is

Jill Lepore is tireless. Whether from her perch as contributor to the New Yorker, her seat on the Harvard history faculty or through her many books, Lepore has been filling the gaps in our understanding of our nation’s history.

In her 2013 National Book Award finalist, “Book of Ages,” Lepore told the story of Jane Franklin, Ben Franklin’s younger sister. At a colloquium last October at the University of Kansas, Lepore spoke to her interest in “the history of inequality.”

Her Jane Franklin biography fits that passion. Although born into the same family, the Franklin siblings were given vastly different educational opportunities. While Ben became a celebrated founder of our country, Jane became an impoverished widow who cared for her grandchildren and then her great-grandchildren.

At first glance, “The Secret History of Wonder Woman” does not fit that inequality template. But that’s just the first glimpse.

Lepore’s new book tells another lost story, of William Moulton Marston, psychologist, movie script writer and consultant, and inventor of the lie detector test.

An itinerant academic, he also created the comic book character Wonder Woman in 1941, his splashiest contribution to history.

In her introduction, Lepore describes Wonder Woman: “She wore a golden tiara, a red bustier, blue underpants, and knee-high, red leather boots. She was a little slinky; she was very kinky.”

Villains often had her bound, usually in chains, which she managed to break. Her skimpy costume always courted scandal, complete with magic bracelets. Suffering Sappho, indeed.

Although the lie detector test has been discredited, Wonder Woman has never left print.

How Wonder Woman was created involves many influences on the formation of its creator, including the suffragist movement, the fight for women’s equality and the battle for birth control.

Marston met his wife-to-be, Sadie Elizabeth Holloway, when they were in the eighth grade. When Holloway entered Mount Holyoke, the nation’s first women’s college, Marston entered Harvard. He studied philosophy and psychology, a field in its infancy. After graduation, the pair married, and Marston began law school at Harvard.

“‘Those dumb bunnies at Harvard wouldn’t take women,’ Holloway said of the law school, ‘so I went to Boston University.’”

Neither practiced law, but Marston pursued his interest in lie detection. In his experiments, Marston ironically took ethical shortcuts. His slippery methods cost him, and over time he dropped from chairman of the psychology department at American University to a nontenured position at Tufts University. There he began a relationship with student Olive Byrne, the niece of Margaret Sanger, the birth-control advocate.

Marston gave Holloway an ultimatum: Either Byrne could move in with them, or he would move out. Thus their unconventional household was born.

If Marston had an inconsistent employment history, Holloway did not. A steady breadwinner, she worked at various editorial jobs and in the insurance industry. When Byrne joined their household, she solved the threadbare question of whether a woman can have it all. Holloway worked and paid the bills; Byrne raised the children, two from each woman.

So there were two women behind this big man. Having lost a lectureship at Columbia, Marston pursued various threads, and Byrne wrote freelance articles for Family Circle in which she frequently interviewed a famous psychologist, Marston, without revealing that she was living with him.

One piece asked his opinion about comic books, newly born in the 1930s. The article netted Marston a consultant’s job with a comics firm.

Having witnessed the fight for women’s suffrage and imbibed Margaret Sanger’s “Woman and the New Race,” he proposed a comic book featuring a female superhero.

Lepore writes that “Marston’s Wonder Woman was a Progressive Era feminist, charged with fighting evil, intolerance, destruction, injustice, suffering, and even sorrow, on behalf of democracy, freedom, justice, and equal rights for women.” She was wildly popular.

When Marston died several years later, another writer took over, domesticating the iconic feminist superhero, at one point turning her into an advice columnist for the lovelorn. She resurfaced with her Golden Lasso of Truth on the cover of the inaugural issue of Ms. Magazine in 1972, restored to Marston’s original ideal.

Gathered through years of historical sleuthing, Lepore’s material is solid, but her tone sometimes borders on breathless. This isn’t yellow journalism, and it isn’t yellow scholarship, but occasionally Lepore seems overly caught up in the juicier parts of what she found.

Still, this book is important, readable scholarship, making the connection between popular culture and the deeper history of the American woman’s fight for equality. Debunking the popular notion of the first (suffrage campaign) and second wave (late 1960s-70s) of feminist history, Lepore writes: “But there was plenty of feminist agitation in the 1940s in the pages of Wonder Woman.”

Lepore restores Wonder Woman to her rightful and righteous place.

Jeffrey Ann Goudie is a freelance writer and reviewer living in Topeka.

The Secret History of Wonder Woman, by Jill Lepore (410 pages; Knopf; $29.95)

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