Learning the Secret History of Wonder Woman

I recently visited my new university, which will begin employing me soon, for some preparatory meetings. As I waited for one meeting to start, I struck up a conversation with a student who was sitting near me. I asked him if he was an English major, since those are the students I will be teaching.

“No. I’m in film. But I’m taking an English class this semester.”

He went on to explain that his interest was really in psychology and human behavior, but that he liked the idea of mixing that with a study of comics, like Batman and Superman, especially the new movies that were coming out.

I immediately began telling him about the latest book I finished, called The Secret History of Wonder Woman (2014) by Jill Lepore. He hadn’t mentioned Wonder Woman as a specific interest, but he had mentioned psychology, and the book had taught me that the creator of Wonder Woman was an academic trained in psychology and law who also happened to have invented the lie detector test.

His name was William Moulton Marston.

wonder_woman_cover

He was a strange character. As I mentioned, he was an academic, but he soon found himself without an academic position because of his weird ideas and his lack of publishing on coherent and trushtworthy topics. He was most interested in his lie detector, which many found to be a phony device. Another person later took the idea and created the more sophisticated version used today. In fact, Marston used his device and his expertise on human behavior to try to get an African American man named Frye off for killing another man; however, the judge ruled that Marston was not an expert that would be heard in the court. To this day, if a defendant’s expert testimony is deemed inadmissible, it is called being “Fryed.”

Marston’s family life was peculiar. He married Natalie Holloway, also an academic, and had two children with her. He also brought a student into the relationship named Olive Byrne. The three of them lived together, and Marston had two children with Olive as well. They told the children that their father had died in war, but eventually they grew up to find out that Marston was really their father and that they had basically had two mothers. It was a different family arrangement, one that Marston predicted would soon be widespread.

Olive Byrne was Margaret Sanger’s niece, and Lepore describes Olive’s childhood in detail, even including the incident of her being thrown out into the snow as a crying baby because her drunk father was irritated. Margaret Sanger rescued Olive from that snow bank and it seems to be a foundational story in Sanger’s activism for birth control. Other biographies and accounts have noted that Sanger’s work in health clinics as a nurse for poor women also prompted her activism. She saw too many women die of home abortions and saw the effects on the health of women when they had babies over and over again without breaks.

The connection to Margaret Sanger is an important one, as it seems that Wonder Woman was based off of her. Marston also used ideas from his wife’s favorite book, Sappho’s poems, about women and mythology, and he was a supporter of women’s rights in the early twentieth century, including suffrage. Wonder Woman is essentially a feminist icon that sprang out of the experiences of Marston and his family during the first wave of feminism in the United States.

However, once Marston died in the late 1940s, Wonder Woman sank into obscurity. That is, until Gloria Steinem and the people at Ms. Magazine contacted his wife Natalie Holloway for information and they published an issue with Wonder Woman on the cover. The comic book company that once shelved her as a character brought her back. In fact, I once had my composition students read Steinem’s essay about Wonder Woman. (They complained that all we ever read in my class was feminist essays, but when we went back through all we had read, the only explicitly feminist essay was Steinem’s about Wonder Woman.)

I was interested to learn about this history of a beloved character, a strong woman who has been a role model to many children. While she was debated in her time, and some thought the violence in all comic books was too much for children, Wonder Woman endured the test of time. The book itself was not what I was expected. I didn’t realize the history of Wonder Woman would be all about a man and his life leading up to his creation of her, but it all came together in the end to make sense. It is a historical study, and while at times a little dense and overwhelming, was an interesting read.

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