The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore

So my family and I are huge superhero movie fans, and we had just finished watching the most recent rendition of Wonder Woman on HBO Max. The movie was awful, but a few days later I stumbled upon a mention of this book in a podcast, so I figured I’d give it a shot. The secret history behind the story here is mind boggling — so mind boggling in fact that it’s almost too incredible to believe it actually happened. But it did, and Lepore’s investigative digging decades after the fact shed light on the parallel’s between the women’s rights movement of the 20’s and 30’s and Wonder Woman, as those movements directly influenced the creation of the story. I actually read that very recently, the administrative assistant to the creator of Wonder Woman passed away, and her own grand-kids didn’t believe that the story behind the story was true either. It turns out that the themes from Wonder Woman — female empowerment, bondage, lasso’s, etc. — are no accident either. I’m probably not doing the story justice by trying to summarize it in paragraph form here either, but Lepore is a fantastic storyteller and she digs deep to get the full scoop — a must read for super hero, female suffragist or 20th century history buffs. It’s a tale that is too good to be true.

  • Feminism made wonder woman and wonder woman made feminism — then it remade feminism, which wasn’t great for equality
  • wonder woman’s debt is to the fictional feminist utopia and to the struggle for women’s rights
  • creator was William Marston — a polymath who invented the lie detector test — had a secret life, 4 children with two wives, lived together under one roof
  • the women he loved were suffragists and Margaret Sanger, one of the most influential feminists in the 20th century, was part of his family
  • “Amazon” — woman rebel in the early 1900’s who left home and went to college — Elizabeth Holloway (Marston’s future wife) was one, in a sense — went to Mt. Holyoke, which was a hotbed of suffragism
  • the word “feminism” was everywhere in 1913 — advocacy of women’s rights and freedoms and a vision of equality markedly different from that embraced by the 19th century movement
  • all feminists are suffragists but not all suffragists are feminists
  • full and equal participation in politics, work, and the arts, on the grounds that women were in every way equal to men
  • broad political goal (suffrage) — feminism was broader, more radical and more difficult
  • feminists wanted to separate sex from reproduction — pleasure, not sacrifice — woman’s right to control her own body, the right to be a mother regardless of church or state (Sanger)
  • the lie detector test that Marston invented is all over Wonder Woman
  • WWI silenced the women’s movement — Espionage Act, Sedition Act
  • Marjorie Huntley, key figure — suffragist but believed in “love binding” — importance of being tied and chained — had an affair with Marston while he was married
  • Frye v US — landmark case in the law of evidence and one of the most cited cases in the history of american law — Frye test = to be admitted as evidence, a new kind of scientific principle has to have gained general acceptance — to be “Frye’d” is to have your experts testimony deemed inadmissible
  • case law obliterates context, and experimental science repudiates tradition; their rise marked a shift away from the idea that truth can be found in the study of the past
  • Marston wanted his lie detector used in the case, but it was denied
  • after Frye, Marston gave up the study of law, which made it possible for him to create Wonder Woman
  • Margaret Sanger and Ethel Byrne were sisters
  • Sanger dug Olive Byrne out of a snowbank when she was a baby, and Olive would end up marrying Marston (two wives, 4 children under one roof)
  • Byrne was arrested for giving out information on contraceptives, went on a hunger strike in jail and was freed on the condition that she not ever participate in the birth control movement — she never forgave Sanger who made the deal with the NY governor — Sanger ended up taking most of the credit for the movement and never gave enough back to Byrne
  • Picturing and talking about women as chained and enslaved was ubiquitous in feminist literature, a carryover from the nineteenth century alliance between the suffrage and abolitionist movements
  • Sanger wrote a book called women and the new race which would turn out to be the philosophy of Wonder Woman — Women should rule the world, Sanger, Marston and Holloway thought, because love is stronger than force
  • “read this and you’ll know everything you need to know about wonder woman” — Olive Byrne, speaking to Joye Hummel, who helped Marston write Wonder Woman in later years
  • Marston was fascinated with the study of sex
  • Lewis Terman invented the IQ test to measure masculinity and femininity — purpose was to identify deviance
  • using birth control, weather women were having fewer children — were expected to devote more attention to them, needed to be taught the science of mother hood — Parents Magazine founded in 1926
  • Marston had a mistress (Byrne), Holloway had a career and Byrne would raise the kids — that was the deal — kids never knew about the arrangement until years later
  • between 1900 and the 1930’s, the percentage of phd’s awarded to women doubled — then for three decades it fell
  • many women were barred from the top ranks of academy — many quit, many were kicked out, most gave up because they knew they couldn’t get anywhere
  • in 1928, Byrne began wearing a pair of close fitted, wide banded bracelets — she never took them off — WW wore the very same bracelets
  • Byrne, over the years, wrote magazine articles about Marston — never revealing their situation, pretending they didn’t know each other — she also pretended he was a brilliant psychologist, and other things
  • Marston, over the years, wrote many arguments about women’s superiority — drew on centuries of women’s writing and borrowed especially heavily from the philosophy of the 19th century women’s movement, with its emphasis on women’s moral superiority, angelic natures
  • in the 1930’s, Margaret Sanger was the best known feminist in the world
  • US v One Package of Japanese Pessaries, second circuit court of appeals ruled that contraception did not violate obscenity laws if prescribed by a physician — ruling effectively removed contraception from the category of obscenity
  • 1937 — AMA endorsed birth control
  • direct result of Sanger’s actions
  • comic strips appeared in the 1890’s — books came in the 30’s (Maxwell Charles Gaines)
  • by 1939, almost every kid in the US was reading comic books — sold everywhere
  • May 1939 — US v Miller — concerned the const of the 1934 National Firearms Act and the 1938 Federal Firearms Act
  • NRA supported legislation (at the time they were a sportsman organization) — gun manufacturers challenged it on the grounds that federal control of gun ownership violated the second amendment
  • FDR’s solicitor general said the 2nd had nothing to do with individual right to own a gun — had to do with common defense — court agreed
  • after this, Batman’s origin story changed — parents shot and murdered, and Batman hated guns — hating guns made him Batman
  • Gaines hired Marston at All American Publications as a consulting psychologist after reading one of Byrne’s articles about him
  • Marston convinced Gaines to counter the attack on comics (that they were fascist — Superman) with a female superhero
  • “strength of superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman”
  • Harry G Peter was the artist who brought experience drawing suffrage cartoons
  • WW wore red white and blue because of Captain America
  • Marston created a character to answer every critic — she was strong, hates guns, relentless but spares victims, believes in the US, equal rights for women, fight facism with feminism
  • WW banned in 1942 — decency crusades, worried about youth reading them — she wasn’t wearing enough clothes
  • WW still sold like crazy, and she joined the justice society — still only as a secretary as WW had a new author who didn’t like feminism — Gardner Fox
  • some racism in WW — accents, dialect — although all villains share an opposition to women’s equality and WW fights them
  • 1942, over Sanger’s objections, Birth Control Federation of America changes name to Planned Parenthood — birth control was too radical — men ran it
  • WW as it’s own issue took off as well, by the third full issue it was selling more than half a million copies — featured pieces of women’s history
  • Dorothy Roubicek — DC’s first women editor was credited — also came up with kryptonite for Superman — wanted him to be more vulnerable
  • strength of WW was one theme, the bondage was another — it was pervasive — all women were bound at some point — they always escape, but first, they are tied up
  • Marston’s idea of feminine supremacy was the ability to submit to male domination — bondage led to trouble with the advisory board of WW
  • WW went to newspaper syndication (comic strip) — only one not Superman or Batman — 10M readers in 1944 — cancelled in 1945 after Marston got polio and died soon after — writing wasn’t the same — grew domestic and written by Joye Hummel, not Marston
  • 1948 Winters v New York — court declared unconstitutional a section of the New York penal code banning printed material that appears to glamorize crime
  • comic books started to be banned in states — bad for kids, heroes are white men, villains are foreigners pushed homosexual ideas and relations (Batman and Robini)
  • Comics Magazine Association came up with a new code for comics and most didn’t survive — WW lived on but wasn’t recognizable after the war — women stayed home, lost jobs, got married
  • WW became a babysitter, fashion model, movie star
  • women went home, women rights went under ground and homosexuals were persecuted
  • Sanger never mentioned WW as part of her story
  • 1965 — Griswold V Conn — banning of contraception was unconst
  • MS magazine launched in 1972 — WW, a MS book, appeared in 1972 as well as a MS publication
  • aftermath of Roe V Wade didn’t bolster feminist movement, it narrowed it
  • comic book industry found it nearly impossible to respond to the women’s movement
  • 70’s and 80’s women’s movement stalled — wages never reached part, social and economic gaines were rolled back, political and legal victories seemingly within sight were never reached -
  • feminists were divided, radicals attacking liberals and attacking radicals in a phenomenon so widespread it had a name — trashing
  • 1972 — Betty Friedan distanced her self from Steinem by accusing her of telling women they had to be “superwomen”
  • while the women’s movement floundered in the late 70’s it did regain a semblance of its history
  • WW, however, was carefully and deliberately hidden from the history, the true origin stories
  • Byrne never mentioned it/for a long time, no one paid much attention to the fact that the creator of WW as the inventor of the lie detector test
  • ironically, the polygraph test doesn’t work either
  • the secrecy of the history of WW led to a distortion of it but also the course of the women’s history and the struggle for equal rights
  • WW was a product of the suffragist, feminist, and birth control movements of the 1900’s and 1910’s and became a source of the women’s liberation and feminist movements of the 60’s and 70's
  • began on a winter day when Margaret Sanger dug Olive Byrne out of a snowbank

I love books, I have a ton of them, and I take notes on all of them. I wanted to share all that I have learned and will continue to learn. I hope you enjoy.