Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Secret History of Wonder Women by Jill Lepore

The Secret History of Wonder Woman Jill Lepore is a bit of a wonder woman herself, certainly a wonder of a historian. She uncovers, unclothes, and satisfactorily binds with ropes and chains (the better to dispose of it) the myth that Wonder Woman was a feature of woman’s liberation rather than one of male dominance. Sadly, the scantily clad Wonder Woman was modeled on the real-life live-in girlfriend of the psychologist who created her, and who himself exhibited the dominant male model all too well.

Lepore not only gives us the background of William Moulton Marston, Harvard-trained psychologist and developer of the systolic blood-pressure polygraph, but also of his wife, Sadie Elizabeth Holloway, herself an almost-PhD (All But Dissertation) who studied psychology and law. Olive Richard Byrne is the younger woman, a former student of Marston’s, who shares their homes, their children, and their beds. Marston and his smart and admiring women lovers lived unconventional family lives in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s in New England, with Marston fathering the children of at least two of the women in their large and ramshackle house to which they moved near the coast in Rye, New York.

Although Marston had lots of experience with strong women and claimed to like, admire, even love them, he (and the women themselves) never really progressed beyond the idea of equality between the sexes to the thing itself. Feminists in name only, I’d have to say, but one might argue that Marston was simply a failure as a wage-earner rather than a dependent louche. His wife Elizabeth earned wages for family upkeep, Olive took care of the children, and Marston…must have…hopefully…kept them happy sexually, though they probably could have done without him there, also.

Lepore probably knows more about W.M.M. (in my mind I call him Willie) than any single person alive and she was frank about his delusions. He began his comic Wonder Woman as an answer to male superheroes and debuted Wonder Woman in hot pants and a tiara in December 1941. Maybe he wasn’t such a talented guy, though his women were pretty admirable and talented. No wonder Wonder Woman. But there was not to be a straight line from 1920s feminism and the right to vote to Wonder Women and equality for women. Marston died in 1947, someone else took over the writing of the comic, and all advances made with a woman forging a new path during the war years were rolled back.

Somehow Wonder Woman never really made the leap from helping out to helping herself. Marston may have been enlightened for his time (god bless his little willie) but he would have been sacrificed at the altar of equality long before this at the hand of Amazons living today in America. Lepore does a good job of reminding us of our past, present, and future --if we don’t manage to prove her wrong. She would like that. Wonder Women Live!

I listened to the Random House Audio production of this title, read by Lepore herself. Lepore has an energetic style and a young-sounding squeaky voice: I appreciate having her add the emphases where she intended, as well as wringing the humor from her writing. I can’t say I found the history of the self-important Marston and his often bound-and-chained Wonder Woman as interesting as Lepore did, but she fortunately puts Marston’s self-promotion in the perspective of the times, and he and his ladies tried for something different with their educations and their lives.


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