thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Secret Histories: Wonder Woman, Feminism, and Uncomfortable Truths

In books, feminism on March 16, 2015 at 6:02 am

Sarah S. lepore_wonder_woman_coverThe secret history of Wonder Woman is in many ways the secret history of feminism in America. Or at least this is how it is portrayed in historian Jill Lepore’s book of the same title. Feminism in the U.S.—indeed, the history of women in the U.S.—seems to be constantly forgotten and rediscovered and forgotten again. And so too Wonder Woman, who’s popularity and overt feminism have both ebbed and swelled and waned again.

The secret history of Wonder Woman is also the secret history of the character’s creator—William Moulton Marston—and the inspirations for his super-powered Amazonian—his wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston and his/their second wife, Olive Byrne. Psychologist Marston invented the polygraph but failed to bring it into reputable use, earned extra income during college by writing movie scripts, and advocated for women’s rights while at Harvard. He met suffragette Holloway, a woman whose brain, ambition, and political fervor exceeded even his own. But Marston was also a proponent of free love. He carried on one affair that Holloway at least tolerated, possibly participated in, setting the stage for their relationship with one of his college students—Byrne.

The secret history of Wonder Woman includes a bevy of such tricky or uncomfortable realities. One of these is Olive Byrne’s mother, Ethel Byrne, a birth control and free love activist almost forgotten by history, overshadowed by her better connected and more PR savvy sister, Margaret Sanger. And so it includes her daughter, Olive, who grew up learning about birth control and free love from her mother and aunt, and then lived in a secret polyamourous relationship with Marston and Holloway from the time she graduated college to Marston’s death. (Byrne and Holloway continued to live together for the rest of their lives as well.) And it includes Marston, who let his ego mask his general inadequacies and lack of financial success (Holloway was the primary breadwinner for the household and the only consistent one) and yet this same ego also emboldened him to woo and “marry” two such brilliant women.

The secret history of Wonder Woman’s creator thus colors the character. In lieu of a wedding ring, Marston gave Byrne two cuff bracelets that she wore regularly, one on each wrist; they were the inspiration for Wonder Woman’s similar cuffs. Marston became fascinated by bondage and submission, and the early comics feature frequent situations where Wonder Woman is chained or otherwise restrained. These images evoke the visual and linguistic rhetoric of the suffrage movement while also allowing Marston to play out his fantasies and toy with his sexual theories. And the secret history reflects the secret life of Marston, Holloway, and Byrne—hidden from virtually everyone, including their children, yet honored in code within the pages of early Wonder Woman comics.

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In The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Lepore does a good job making Wonder Woman’s history our history. She uncovers the suffrage and other feminist influences over the character. She discusses the revitalization of the character in the 1970s as an icon of second-wave feminism. (Perhaps we are about to see yet another surge with the release of the pending movie?) And as I found most fascinating, she uses the messy, unconventional, imperfect story of Wonder Woman’s creators and historical time period as a metaphor for the messy, unconventional, imperfect story of feminism in the U.S.

I have nits to pick with this book. It repeats certain points and stories to a distracting degree. And like any textual critic worth her salt, I wish that Lepore, like most historians, would push a bit more on what she uncovers, moving beyond noticing that things are thus-and-so to articulating why they are as they are. (Sorry, historians!) In particular, as someone who is not a big Wonder Woman fan, I wish Lepore had dug just a little bit deeper into where Wonder Woman succeeds and fails as a feminist icon: Why does she work for many women, hot-pants notwithstanding? Can we reconcile the bondage, the unequal marriage, and Marston’s other peccadilloes with the icon we want Wonder Woman to be?

That said, I primarily found The Secret History of Wonder Woman a fascinating and smart read. I also commend Lepore for the depth of her primary research. I imagine it will be an interesting cultural predecessor to the forthcoming movie. Fans have been howling for this reboot and it will be a fascinating challenge for writer-director Michelle MacLaren to honor the character’s history while updating her in a way that satisfies our current requirements for a feminist icon/Amazonian princess. I have no doubt that Lepore’s book will function as an “X” marking Wonder Woman’s past and future.

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