As the first nonfiction book I’m reviewing for this blog, I’m not quite sure how to really approach doing this. Is the book entertaining? Yes. Will you learn a lot about the context of Wonder Woman? Yes. So if you care about Wonder Woman at all, this feels like essential reading to me. I’ve never seen a character’s origins so deconstructed and tied to the culture from which she sprang before. As a study of how creative works come from very specific experiences and context, it is without peer. So let’s get that stuff out of the way, and talk about the book more specifically.
This book concerns itself with the deep gender quandry at the heart of Wonder Woman, to me. What possessed a man to create comics’ most significant woman? And that answer is so complicated. Jill Lepore’s book is essentially a biography of William Moulton Marston, and to a lesser extent the women he lived with, but it can never truly reconcile the reality with the fiction created. Marston is a weird man, parochial and juvenile and a compulsive egotist, but with a seeming desperate need to lean on and champion women. I have no doubt that in 2016 he would either be an insufferable ally man or potentially a very exuberant gender non-conforming person, but in the 1930s he seems a bit like a manipulative creep. But that’s not a simple answer, because the people in his life seemed to adore him in the face of all of that, and the secrets of their real private life will probably never be uncovered.
Much is made of Marston’s living situation with his wife Elizabeth Holloway and his mistress Olive Byrne, both incredibly forceful, educated, and ambitious women for their time. The book can’t speak, because such records don’t exist, to how their living arrangement was in terms we understand: bisexuality and polyamory and the like. It would feel like an imposition to project, because the people involved requested that private life be left to history. But the Marston household feels like it came from a different era, a messy, boundary-pushing idea of gender roles and love that feels to us so hopelessly out of sync with its whole time.
But at the same time, Lepore’s book goes to great lengths to explain that maybe it wasn’t quite as impossible to imagine. As much as the book is about Marston’s household, it is also about the state of women in American culture in this era, from the first fights to be educated through the suffrage movement into battles for sexual agency through birth control movements. It’s the story of people wanting to let women attend colleges but having no processes to grant them degrees, of doors opening in war time for women to become economically independent only to have jobs evaporate as the troops came home, of horizons broadened through sex education and access to contraceptive in the face of a fanatical battle to put women firmly back into households as mothers and wives first and foremost.
As much as The Secret History of Wonder Woman is about the creation of a hero, it’s about the crashing waves of progress in culture. It’s a landscape of the first feminists, the battles fought and compromises made, the gains made and ultimately the history of a slow defeat as the wave rolled back and all that was left was dashed hopes and renewed conservatism. It purports to establish Wonder Woman as a bridge between the first wave of feminism and the second wave in the 70s, when the wave came again but most of the history was lost. There are so many lines drawn between the reality of the world Marston lived and the one he created that it feels like the hopes and frustrations of the 20s and 30s protected in the sheen of fiction, only to be rediscovered after the storms had subsided on a new shore of a more receptive time.
It’s a great reminder, more than anything, that we fight an endless fight for the things we hold dear in culture, and that so many have come before us and been left as marginalia and half-remembered memories. That is what it does, more than act as a biography or insight into creative design. To truly understand the context of Wonder Woman is to understand the context of how womanhood itself was being defined in the first half of the last century, both by women who fought and by men who oppressed, and how little that war has changed between then and now.
So yeah. I think it’s worth reading. For many reasons, and honestly few of them having anything to do with Diana. As much as I love the Amazonian princess and what she represents, it is so important for us to remember that behind these fictions comes the choices of creators. In comics, that means mostly men, projecting onto these works all of their feelings about the women around them. That is what we tackle when we look at these comics. It’s not just the stories, it’s the mirror it gives us to look at ourselves as a whole culture, to learn and hopefully grow and maybe be better than before.