Wonder Woman is one of most popular comic book characters. Because she is about to be featured in a film that will bring Batman and Superman together in epic battle, and is expected to be featured in a film of her own, the Internet is already beginning to buzz with concern over how badly she may be portrayed and hopes that the filmmakers will get her right. She has starred in some great stories, but often the stories about her have disappointed for various reasons. The difficulty of depicting a woman superhero has its roots in sorting out the roles of women in society, something we’re still working on. It is a struggle Wonder Woman was born to fight.
Jill Lepore explores the birth of this female superhero in The Secret History of Wonder Woman. In one of her various comics origins, the demigoddess was formed from the mud of Paradise Island, but Lepore describes how she was formed in the suffrage and feminist movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and an unusual family with strong ties to these movements.
Wonder Woman first appeared in print in 1941. When she became the title character of her own comic, her creator came from behind his pseudonym, with some fanfare, and revealed himself as psychologist William Moulton Marston.
Marston’s lifestyle is known now, but it was a closely held secret during his lifetime. For all practical purposes, if not legally, he had two wives. Surprisingly, both women were feminists. They both loved Marston and found in this arrangement a way to live the lives they wanted. They had a pragmatic, flexible feminism that was accepting of the unconventional. I can hardly do it justice in a few words, but Lepore explores the early days of feminism that shaped the arrangement Marston had with these two women.
Marston met Elizabeth Holloway while they were undergraduates, he at Harvard and she at Mount Holyoke. They were both advocates of women’s suffrage. They married in 1915. Marston received a doctorate and Holloway a master’s degree. Holloway claimed to be deeply involved in Marston’s early research. The Marston household became full of writers and editors, and overtime attribution became a matter of convenience or marketing rather than identification of individual authorship.
Olive Byrne met Marston as an undergraduate at Tufts, where she became his research assistant. She quickly became more and moved into the Marston household. Eventually they worked out the arrangement that Holloway would work full-time (over time she had several jobs as an editor) while Byrne raised the children (each had two children with Marston). Byrne eventually felt the need to contribute the finances and in the 1930s wrote for Family Circle as Oliver Richards (Richards from the marriage and widowhood she faked to obscure the parentage of her children). Byrne, like the Marstons she joined, had ties to the feminist and birth control movements. She was the daughter of Ethel Byrne and her aunt was the more famous Margaret Sanger.
Holloway, Byrne, and even Sanger, were to varying degrees the models for Wonder Woman. She was to be feminist propaganda, and under Marston’s pen she was. One would guess that this would have attracted criticism, but it was not the feminism of Wonder Woman that most stirred up critics.
Bondage was depicted on almost every page of Marston’s comics. In addition, Wonder Woman’s costume was skimpy. Lepore links the bondage in these comics to the use of bondage as a symbol used by suffragists and feminists. Sometimes Marston drew very consciously on images associated with these movements. In addition, the bondage represented notions of domination and submission rooted in Marston’s theories of personality and the relationship between the sexes. Bonds, and the breaking of them, represented the misappropriation of power by men and the power of women to free themselves and take their place as leaders in society. Similarly, Wonder Woman’s bare limbs were emblematic of her athleticism, strength, power and essential equality to make heroes. It’s hard to say that the depiction of Wonder Woman is completely free of sexual undertone, Marston wanted her to be beautiful. Lepore shows the clear link between the symbolism of Wonder Woman and the symbolism of suffrage and feminism that Marston consciously referenced.
When Marston passed away in 1947, Wonder Woman fell into the hands of writers and editors who did not share his vision. She hasn’t been the same since. After World War II, the feminism she represented was not welcome in the broader culture or by the men who wrote her comics. Even after the second wave of feminism adopted her as an emblem in the 1970s, she’s not been quite at home. Perhaps we’ll have trouble getting Wonder Woman right as long as we have conflict about the roles of women in our culture.
If you’re interested in either comics or feminism, I recommend Lepore’s book. It is thoroughly researched and thoroughly readable.
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