The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore
Wonder Woman is an important feminist icon, and this book explores her creation by William Moulton Marston and her subsequent effect on modern culture. Marston used scraps of his own experiences to shape the character he wrote about in comics. While at Harvard he experimented with machines that might tell truth from lies, conducting experiments wherein he hooked people up to a machine which tested their blood pressure while answering questions. In this respect he invented the lie detector, which has a remarkable resemblance to Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth.
His personal life was also to colour his invention of the Wonder Woman character. He married Sadie Elizabeth Holloway, a strong feminist, and they had two children together. Meanwhile, Marston also conducted a relationship with Olive Byrne, who lived with Marston and Holloway in a ménage a trois and bore him two children. Their living arrangements were unconventional, but they seemed to work for them all.
Marston believed in the power of love, and he was desperate for a platform from which to spread his views. “Women have twice the emotional development, the ability for love, that man has. And as they develop as much ability for worldly success as they have already the ability for love, they will clearly come to rule business and the Nation and the world.”
Marston claimed that his basic idea was for women to be “fighting male dominance, cruelty, savagery and war-making with love control backed by force.” This dominance was represented by chains, which proved one of Marston’s major hurdles, as there were complaints that the excessive bondage in Wonder Woman led to inappropriate behaviour and attracted the ‘wrong sort of audience’.
The comics were most definitely aimed at children. “By 1939, almost every kid in the United States was reading comic books. A form of writing that hadn’t existed just a few years earlier seemed to have taken over the country.” If there is one thing lacking in this book it is the author’s inability to explain the phenomenon whereby comics began to appeal to adults. Marston himself wanted them to be taken seriously by more than just children, and he desperately wanted academic acclaim.
Wonder Woman was also accused of racism, with the villains being German, Japanese or Mexican, speaking in dialect and with hook-noses. But what all villains in Wonder Woman share is their opposition to woman’s equality. Wonder Woman fights Nazis and boys bullying girls at school; she makes sure that milk is safe to drink for American children; she battles the unscrupulous textile industry to install equal and fair wages for women workers; she tackles jealous and controlling husbands who chain their wives to the sink and will not let them go to work or even leave the house. Gloria Steinem reflects, “Looking back now at these Wonder Woman stories from the 40s, I am amazed by the strength of the feminist message.”
The first issue of Wonder Woman contained a four-page centrefold feature called ‘Wonder Women of History’ to “celebrate the lives of heroic women and explain the importance of women’s history”. The scripts featured “scientists, writers, politicians, social workers, doctors, nurses, athletes and adventurers”. Sadly, attitudes which were progressive in the 1920 became quite reactionary in the 1950s. The Wonder Woman of History pull-out was replaced with a series about weddings called ‘Marriage a la Mode’.
Like everything else, Wonder Woman changed in the 1950s to reflect the prevalent attitudes. Although Wonder Woman was created by Marston, drawn by Harry G Peter, edited by Sheldon Mayer, and published by Charlie Gaines, she was owned by Sensation and latterly DC Comics. Gardner Fox also wrote Wonder Woman stories, and he had a very different perspective on a Woman’s Place. Thus, while in 1942 Wonder Woman joined ‘The Justice Society of America’ (by popular vote from readers of Sensation Comics) and was the only female in the society, she was relegated to making tea and taking minutes under Fox.
Wonder Woman’s character was revised in the American TV show of the 1970s, but she had lost much of her socio-political heft. As the women’s movement floundered in the late 1970s and 1980s, and splintered into factions from which it still suffers, Wonder Woman suffered right along with it. She was a woman of her time, and maybe the time is right for a revival.