Much about Wonder Woman’s creation has been wrapped up in mystery. Some fans will tell you that she was born out of BDSM, others might suggest the influence of Rosie the Riveter and other propaganda campaigns to get women working during World War II. But much about the lives of her creators were kept out of the public eye for fear of persecution. There were of course rumours that her creator, William Marston, was a polygamist, but not much else has been said about him or his wives. That is, until Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman.
Lepore makes an amazing case of Wonder Woman being the product of the suffragist, feminist and birth control movements. Parallels are drawn between real life events in the Marston family, and also the media they grew up with. Lepore threads together the story of the Marstons and those influential in their lives, and sprinkles in the pages panels from Marston’s Wonder Woman comic that seems to be-or is blatantly-referencing those events. For example, I was unaware that in the 1910s, Amazonian utopias were popular in feminist fiction. Child of the Amazons and Other Poems by Max Eastman, Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Angel Island by Inez Jaynes Gillmore seemed to serve as an inspiration for the origins of Wonder Woman, as they feature women who live in a utopia set apart from men, even reproducing without them but only by their own choice. This is extremely reminiscent of Wonder Woman’s clay origins, in which Queen Hippolyta wanted a baby, and so created one of of clay. The gods blessed the clay baby with life and so, Wonder Woman was born.
Lepore’s book spends so much time on the Marstons and the backdrop of their lives that the creation of Wonder Woman does not even occur until the last quarter of the book. This might annoy some, but this book is really about what gave birth to Wonder Woman rather than about the total history of the character. The book is littered with surprising facts about the Marstons that may even shock you, such as their membership in a New Age club that promoted free love, or that Wonder Woman’s bracelets were inspired by Olive Byrne’s wedding bracelets that she never took off. Even though I came to the book expecting BDSM to be explored, it wasn’t so simple as that. Marston believed that women’s strength lied in their ability to love and submit, but he did not believe in male domination. He boldly predicted that women would rule the world a thousand years from now, and there would be a battle of the sexes. The men would be led by what seems to be MRAs, but they will lose and the matriarchy will rightfully rule in peace. Men, he proclaimed, should not be unhappy masters but content slaves. Wonder Woman is of course tied up and chained often in the Marston comics, to the point where censors were wringing their hands over the bondage themes. And while Marston himself did seem to find it alluring (he actually did publish an erotic novel about bondage in the 30s), he insisted his use of bondage was not meant to be sexual, but academic and psychological. His critics, he maintained, just didn’t have the credentials to truly understand what he was doing.
After Marston’s death, DC appointed Robert Kanigher as writer and editor of Wonder Woman, much to the dismay of Elizabeth Holloway who implored DC to hire her. Kanigher was a chauvanist who hated Wonder Woman’s feminism, and Wonder Woman became much more docile and fixated on her romance with Steve Trevor. DC just didn’t understand Wonder Woman, Lepore insists. This was a little depressing to read because it feels so true today. Many of Wonder Woman’s best writers, such as Perez, Rucka and Simone, were very aware of Wonder Woman’s feminist (and I would argue, queer) core, and celebrated it. However, DC as a whole just did not know what to do with her and reboot after reboot, tried to make her more violent and gritty. With the New 52, she becomes Superman’s girlfriend (a little horrifying as one of her early critics wrote an article called A Wife For Superman in which he attacked Wonder Woman for not being a happy, submissive wife), and Paradise Island is a paradise no more, but a backwards oppressive matriachy that seems to have been plucked from the nightmares of Rush Limbaugh.
But perhaps there is still hope for Wonder Woman. Comics have been enjoying new success with a large influx of new readers. Ms. Marvel, Thor, Batgirl and Captain Marvel have been inspiring new female fans eager for a feminist hero to look up to. Wonder Woman’s New 52 series has been woefully made irrelevant to this new resurgence, but Sensation Comics and The Legend Of Wonder Woman, not to mention Grant Morrison’s upcoming Wonder Woman: Earth One draw largely from her feminist roots. The Secret History of Wonder Woman was published in 2014 and I do suspect that Lepore had a hand in creating this new love and nostalgia for Wonder Woman’s feminist days, and perhaps with a rumoured reboot on the horizon, we may see Wonder Woman’s main book return to the feminism that the Marstons championed.
If you are a Wonder Woman fan, you need The Secret History of Wonder Woman. If you are not a Wonder Woman fan, then I still recommend it. Lepore’s writing is never dull, and presents such a vivid history of women’s rights that rivals Gender Studies textbooks. The Marstons are as complicated and bombastic as the superhero they created, and while Olive Byrne might not approve of her secrets finally being aired out, I am so glad I got to know them.