Suffering Sappho! Wonder Woman was the invention of a polyamorous, BDSM-practicing Harvard-educated psychologist who wanted women to rule the world and saw comics as propaganda to raise girls into strong empowered women? And nobody told me?
For those who grew up on the fairly tame Wonder Woman variants from the latter part of the 20th century, Jill Lepore’s masterful work of scholarship, The Secret History of Wonder Woman, will come across as nothing short of astonishing.
It’s hard to know where to begin in discussing this book, simply because it does so much. As a work of scholarship, it does a superb job of putting a literary – never mind comic superhero – character in her broader historical and social context. All the sensationalism of her author’s lifestyle aside, that is the real secret history: the broad array of themes and inspirations which manifested themselves in the comic during its early years, and which for many contemporary readers probably still lie unknown. Lepore’s overarching accomplishment lies in tracing this array of inspirations to their roots, untying this tangled and all but forgotten historical chain and then retracing it in riveting and accessible prose. Many of the basic facts were not unknown, but Lepore’s research has dramatically expanded our range of knowledge on the subject and tied it together in a far more comprehensive fashion than ever before.
The story begins in the era of the suffrage movement for women’s right to vote, which shaped both the people and the politics behind Wonder Woman. It proceeds into the struggle for birth control and broader equality rights for women – in many ways Wonder Woman was inspired by famous feminist icon Margaret Sanger, who had surprising family connections to the creators of the comic – and explores the unconventional sexual and family relationships of Wonder Woman’s creators. It also ties Wonder Woman’s early history into the present era: her re-appropriation by feminist activists and her role in galvanizing decades of progressive women (and men) in the struggle for equality.
I say ‘creators’ in the plural because one of Lepore’s accomplishments is to draw out the broader group of individuals involved in crafting Wonder Woman: both in terms of abstract inspiration as well as direct creative contributions. Her book, then, is both a history of the man most often credited with Wonder Woman’s creation – eccentric Harvard-educated psychologist William Moulton Marston – but also of those lesser known characters around him who turn out to have played just as important a role in shaping this iconic female superhero. As so often in history, it turns out the women in Marston’s circle who played so pivotal a role in the Wonder Woman story have been edged out of that story, and Lepore brings them back in.
But the book also provides a broader social history of the period, as well, depicting the social struggles surrounding women’s rights, comics and censorship, and even the role of psychology in upholding particular models of justice and social behaviour. It’s a fascinating and eclectic study which draws in seemingly unrelated threads but succeeds in binding them together into a cohesive and riveting historical narrative.
Wonder Woman on Tour
Lepore’s been on tour with her new book, and she passed through Toronto in mid-December where she spoke about her work and its background. Presented through the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy (a remarkable collection of tens of thousands of items that grew out of the former ‘Spaced Out Library’ of the ‘70s, and describes itself as “Canada’s major collection of speculative fiction and one of the world’s finest popular culture collections”), and organized by local independent comics shop The Beguiling, there were many a comic fan in the audience. In this, Lepore may have been the odd one out.
“I didn’t come to this project as someone obsessed with comics,” she admitted to the packed hall. She’s a political historian, not a comics historian. And her interest lay in the many interesting strands of American history which can be traced through the development of Wonder Woman. From the history of opinion polling (Maxwell Charles Gaines, founder of DC Comics, was heavily influenced by the rise of opinion polling and conducted regular polls in his comics, while George Gallup – of Gallup poll fame – in fact served on the editorial board of the True Comics company) to shifting notions of justice, Wonder Woman offers a unique vantage point from which to consider some of the competing and evolving ideas that shaped the American political landscape in the early 20th century. Furthermore, Lepore explained, adopting a biographer’s approach to the subject – the book being crafted around the life of Wonder Woman’s creator William Moulton Marston and his immediate circle – takes a researcher in a different direction from one who approached it as part of a broader comics history.
Wonder Woman was political right from the start. One of Marston’s goals was to create a character who would both counter the moralistic attack on the comics genre, as well as reinforce his own previously stated view that “women would one day rule the world” (an assertion the media-hungry Marston announced in a press conference he held on the topic in 1937). In an article he later published in the journal American Scholar titled “Why 100,000,000 Americans read comics”, he elaborated on the theme.
A male hero, at best, lacks the qualities of maternal love and tenderness which are as essential to a normal child as the breath of life… it’s sissified, according to exclusively masculine rules, to be tender, loving, affectionate, and alluring. “Aw, that’s girl’s stuff!” snorts our young comics reader. “Who wants to be a girl?” And that’s the point; not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, power… The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.
In a press release Marston issued in 1942 (in which he revealed himself as Wonder Woman’s author) he stated his goals with stirring clarity: “’Wonder Woman’ was conceived by Dr. Marston to set up a standard among children and young people of strong, free, courageous womanhood; and to combat the idea that women are inferior to men, and to inspire girls to self-confidence and achievement in athletics, occupations and professions monopolized by men.”
“He’s very explicit about the feminist project,” explained Lepore in her talk. “[It was] the manifestation of a lot of ferment that has gone on in American politics up to the 1940s.” Indeed, beginning in 1942 issues of the comic also featured ‘Wonder Women of History’ – a series of brief biographies of important women throughout history (curated, researched and written by Alice Marble, a remarkable woman in her own right who was at the time the top women’s tennis player in the world). This was designed explicitly to educate the young readers of the series on the sort of feminist history they would not have been receiving in school.
All of this is fascinating history. What makes Lepore’s book even more compelling, however, is its success at recognizing and drawing together the broader web of subtle influences, and here is where the skill of the historian comes in. For example, the cages and chains that are ubiquitous in Wonder Woman comics have their origins in the iconography of the suffrage movement. Political art of that era frequently depicted women in chains or breaking their chains, and indeed, Marston bypassed younger artists to recruit aging artists Lou Rogers and Harry G. Peter, who both had experience illustrating suffrage leaflets and newspapers. Furthermore, backdrops to Wonder Woman stories often had their roots in real historical events – actual labour strikes by women workers, for instance.
“When you know the history, you see Wonder Woman differently,” Lepore explained.
Marston is a fascinating character, and his work – of which Wonder Woman was the most enduring – depicts someone engaged in a broader struggle for liberal ideals. He was originally an academic who gradually found himself edged out of the academy, partly due to his own impatient and blustery nature, but partly also due to his personal lifestyle, of which rumours gradually emerged. But the two intersect in interesting ways. As a psychologist Marston pitted himself against the emerging field of ‘abnormal psychology’.
At a time when others were trying to understand what made certain people pursue what was then considered ‘abnormal’ behaviour – homosexuality, transvestism, sexual fetishism, etc. – Marston argued vociferously that there was nothing abnormal about such behaviour. He argued that instead of trying to deter such behaviour, psychologists ought to be educating people to understand that their behaviour was perfectly normal: “not dependent in any way upon what their neighbours are doing, or upon what they think their neighbours want them to do. People must be taught that the love parts of themselves, which they have come to regard as abnormal, are completely normal.” His book Emotions of Normal People, published in 1928, was his final intellectual barrage at the academy, but it received little notice. He was, it seems, several decades ahead of his time.
Understanding Feminist History
Wonder Woman has broader implications for feminist theory and epistemology, as well. Beyond the literary and propaganda value the comic has played throughout the 20th century – from its early days under Marston’s guidance to its renascence, thanks to Ms. Magazine and other feminist activists of the late 20th century – Lepore suggests it helps reshape our broader understanding of feminist history. While feminist history is often thought of as having occurred in ‘waves’, she argues that Wonder Woman demonstrates how these waves intersected in more complicated ways.
Early Wonder Woman combined imagery, and even the artists, of classic first wave feminism, but engaged and directed it toward typical second wave causes (equal pay for women, for instance). Even in the late 20th century, the comic was drawing on imagery and inspiration from all eras of feminist history, transcending the typical wave model. “I think that when you put Wonder Woman back into that history… you don’t have these waves. It’s like this river of women fighting for equality… [It’s] an important missing piece to the history of feminism.”
Lepore is precisely the sort of intellectual the present era needs. Currently a history professor at Harvard, her research and writing spans an eclectic spectrum. From aging, to the Tea Party, to Jane Franklin and now Wonder Woman and more, her style is accessible and engaging without ever skimping on detail or fact. A staff writer for The New Yorker, she’s also written for a range of other popular newspapers and magazines, in addition to her academic publishing. She is, in short, the sort of public intellectual whose work forces us to re-examine our understanding of things we assume we know well, and to realize there are often surprising connections to be drawn with processes and ideas that extend beyond the narrow shadow of our generation’s collective memory.
In the case of Wonder Woman, Lepore has added to our understanding of an iconic literary character ensconced deep within the mythology of our modern society; but more importantly she has used this character to shape a new understanding of that society’s own history. The Wonder Woman of the ‘40s was far ahead of her time, as were her creators. Or were they? Is it perhaps that, like feminism itself, the confluence of creative ideas (like comic superheroes) and political agendas (like feminism and tolerance of a plurality of sexual identities and lifestyles) are more like rivers, whose waves ebb and flow but ultimately edge relentlessly forward? Lepore’s research is surprising not only because it reveals what we did not know about Wonder Woman, but because it underscores what we did not know about our own history.
The Secret History of Wonder Woman is a riveting read that’s hard to put down, and one that will interest not just superhero and comics aficionados, but anyone interested in the broad sweep of American history. Wonder Woman has been a feminist icon for several generations already, and if anything, her Secret History affirms that she is likely to continue the role for many generations to come.
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