Wonder Woman’s Kinky World

The Secret History of Wonder Woman

By Jill Lepore

Whips and chains, oh my. Bondage and submission, oh my, oh my. Libertine living, oh my, my.

Wonder Woman was quite the kinkster. Well, truthfully, her creator, William Moulton Marston, was the one. But the kink wasn’t for kink’s sake. Rather, he used it to champion his, and his wife, mistress, and close associates, belief in equal rights for woman. Marston’s is quite the tale, an iconoclastic character in a time and place that didn’t take too kindly to the apple cart tipping type. And no one could do quite the justice to his life and achievement as Harvard American History professor Jill Lepore.

Lepore has a talent for uncovering and educating in the most delightful manner about the covalences of historical periods. She did that with Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin and does so just as skillfully with this book.

Wonder Woman, as Lepore demonstrates, is intrinsically tied to and born of the women’s rights movement, from suffrage, through birth control, and full equality with men. In fact, Wonder Woman’s manifesto, according to William Moulton Marston, the man who created her, came straight from Margaret Sanger’s Woman and the New Race. And in the mid-40s, when Olive Byrne had to offer guidance on writing Wonder Woman comics to Joye Hummel, she handed her a copy of Sanger’s book, advising her to read it.

William Moulton Marston created Wonder Woman after years of knocking around in the academic world of psychology. His main endeavor was to develop a foolproof, scientifically based method for detecting lying. He did invent such a device, but it wasn’t particularly accurate; though Marston tested and tested and published and published and wasn’t above skewing and distorting and, well, lying in support of his idea. In Wonder Woman, the lie detector gets whipped out on a regular basis. And till his dying day, Marston claimed invention of the lie detector as among his great achievements. (The Polygraph, the efficacy of which experts still dispute, was credited to police detective and Phd John Larson.)

Marston proved good at anything promoting Marston. However, he wasn’t much good at earning a living; he managed an academic career that started high and consistently worked downward. Fortunately for him, as a Harvard (BA, LLB, and PhD [psychology]) student he met Elizabeth “Sadie” Holloway, a Radcliffe student. They shared interests, fell in love, and married. She was a woman who worked and worked hard. She supported Marston and their iconoclastic family, consisting of the two of them, their two children, Olive Byrne (abandoned by her mother Ethel, supported by Sanger, and mother to two additional Marston children), and occasionally Marjorie Huntley, until Marston hit upon a cultural phenomena that enriched them, Wonder Woman.

So, to fully tell the story of how Wonder Woman sprang from the women’s movement and to explain some of the superhero’s kinkier aspects (among them bondage and plenty of chains) Lepore weaves together the history of women’s rights struggle, birth control, the development of psychology as an academic discipline, the rise of new media (film and comics), and the liberalizing of sexual mores.

While The Secret History of Wonder Woman is great cultural and intellectual history, it’s also a rousing tale of people who lived outside the bounds of commonly accepted morality at the time when the price for such difference carried a hefty price. While William Marston was something of a self-aggrandizer, often times a dictator in his home who acted against his own principles of equality, it can be said he created a fictional character that made a difference, and that supported his lifetime idea: the world would be a better place, a more peaceful place, if run by women.

As Marston said in a press release quoted by Lepore:

“`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.”

So kudos to Lepore for establishing Marston’s significance in cultural history, for showing us how influential a medium we might think of as lowly can be, and for doing it all in a lively fashion.

Jammed cheek to jowl with photos of the principals and Wonder Woman panels (many in color), plus footnotes, bibliography, and index. c/w

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