The surprising origins of a 20th-century goddess.
Wonder Woman, writes Lepore (History/Harvard Univ.; Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, 2013), “was the product of the suffragist, feminist, and birth control movements of the 1900s and 1910s and became a source of the women’s liberation and feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s.” Long-legged, wearing short shorts and knee-high red boots, Wonder Woman burst into comics in 1941, the creation of William Moulton Marston, a Harvard-educated psychologist. Marston, a master at self-promotion, had failed as a college professor; colleagues scorned his publicity stunts. When he tried to market himself as a psychology consultant to the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover opened a file on him. Among the many topics on which Marston expounded was women’s power. “Women have twice the emotional development, the ability for love, than man has,” he announced. Oddly, he also believed that submission and bondage were intrinsic to women’s happiness. “In episode after episode,” writes Lepore, “Wonder Woman is chained, bound, gagged, lassoed, tied, fettered and manacled,” scenes that Marston described “in careful, intimate detail, with utmost precision,” so that the artist who drew the series could get them exactly right. The creation, publishing history and eventual demise of the cartoon character are only part of Lepore’s story, which uncovers the secret of Marston’s startlingly unconventional family. Married to Elizabeth “Betty” Holloway, who often provided the family’s sole support, Marston brought into their home Olive Byrne, the niece of Margaret Sanger. Byrne had been his student, became his mistress, and had two of his children, who were brought up thinking their father had died. Marston had two children with Holloway, as well, whom Byrne raised, freeing Holloway to go to work. After Marston’s death in 1947, the two women spent the rest of their lives together.
Lepore mines new archival sources to reconstruct Marston’s tangled home life and the controversy generated by Wonder Woman. It’s an irresistible story, and the author tells it with relish and delight.