Now nearly 73, Wonder Woman has become a relatively uncontroversial cultural icon in her old age, for sale on countless lunch boxes, T-shirts and collectible toys — even gracing the big screen in her very own motion picture slated for 2017. In “The Secret History of Wonder Woman,” however, Harvard history professor and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore unearths the much more radical origin of the world’s most famous female superhero: a bondage-themed feminist character created by the conflicted patriarch of a secretly polyamorous family.
After years of sifting through unpublished letters and diaries, Lepore has written the authoritative work on William Moulton Marston, a Harvard-educated psychologist best known for two things: inventing the lie detector test and creating the world’s most famous superheroine.
Lepore’s careful detective work reveals a man of fascinating contradictions. Heavily influenced by the suffragette and women’s liberation movements of the early 20th century, Marston advocated fiercely and often radically in his comics for the recognition of women’s strength while simultaneously delighting in their bondage and submission. But the most irresistible irony lies in the revelation that the father of the modern polygraph was himself a prodigious liar.
Although Marston married his childhood sweetheart, Elizabeth Holloway, shortly after college, he soon broadened his romantic horizons by inviting a mistress to join their life: Olive Byrne, the niece of legendary birth-control activist Margaret Sanger. Although the three shared a “nonconformist” home for the rest of their lives and collectively raised four children, to the outside world Byrne was passed off as a housekeeper or sister-in-law.
The dual inspirations for Wonder Woman, Holloway and Byrne were tremendously bright women who not only shared Marston’s free-thinking ideals but provided the labor necessary to maintain his lifestyle. Although he tried his hand at everything from academia to motion pictures, Marston was something of a chronic failure; it was Holloway who served as the primary breadwinner for the family while Byrne raised the children — neatly dividing the superheroic double shift of the “modern woman” between them.
Created during WWII as an antidote to the “blood-curdling masculinity” of most superhero comics, Wonder Woman was intended not only to “combat the idea that women are inferior to men” but to demonstrate their true power, which Marston believed in: their capacity for peace, love — and submission. Finally, Marston had found a place where he could be honest about his radical ideas on gender and love — albeit draped in mythological metaphors.
Not coincidentally, the voluptuous heroine, wearing high-heeled boots, somehow found herself chained, manacled or hog-tied in nearly every issue. The startling specificity and frequency of the bondage quickly prompted an editorial request “to cut down the use of chains by at least 50 to 75 percent.”
Marston insisted that the bondage merely expressed his belief that “the only hope for peace is to teach people … to enjoy submission to kind authority, wise authority.” Exactly how this idea fit into women’s liberation, particularly at a time when women were so deeply constrained by submissive gender roles, was a thorny proposition at best. Marston, of course, saw no conflict; for all his claims of insight into the truth about human nature and romantic desire, he was never particularly good at being honest about his own.
Although Lepore isn’t the first writer to uncover Marston’s polyamory or the less-than-subtle kinks of his comics, “The Secret History of Wonder Woman” is the fullest and most fascinating portrait ever created about the complicated, unconventional family that inspired one of the most enduring feminist icons in pop culture.
Much like the story of Wonder Woman herself, Lepore’s book does not end with Marston’s death; instead, it traces the ebbs and flows of feminism through the subsequent decades, not only in the Wonder Woman comics but American culture at large. The two are not unrelated. Over the years, Wonder Woman has become not simply a product of the early feminist movement in America but a barometer of its success.
While the 21st century Wonder Woman has evolved into a benign, easily consumable symbol of girl power — signifying at least a lip-service acceptance of gender equality — Lepore suggests that the veil of secrecy over her origin has a created “a distortion not only of Wonder Woman but also of the course of women’s history and equal rights.”
In her hands, “The Secret History of Wonder Woman” is its own magic lasso, one that compels history to finally tell the truth about Wonder Woman — and compels the rest of us to behold it.
Hudson is an entertainment and culture writer in Portland, Ore.
The Secret History of Wonder Woman
Alfred A. Knopf: 410 pp., $29.95