Sara Dowse, award-winning author of 'As The Lonely Fly', reflects on 'The Secret History of Wonder Woman' by Jill Lepore. It would be no exaggeration to say that books have made my life. Through them I’ve travelled to foreign lands and met a wide range of people of different backgrounds and experiences. And long ago, because of what Aldous Huxley once wrote about the need to give back to literature some small measure of what the wealth of literature has contributed, I began writing articles and reviews and stories and eventually published books of my own. A drop in the ocean, yes, but it’s interesting to me how one thing leads to another, and then to another and yet another, especially in the world of books.
Back in 1987 Arthur Miller, the distinguished American playwright, published his autobiography, Timebends. Miller was of my parents’ generation, and shared many of their experiences. Though exempted from military service owing to an injured kneecap, he worked in the navy shipyards during the second world war. But his best friend Joe was killed during the war, and this had a profound impact on him. Surprisingly, it also had a connection with me. Reading Timebends, I learned that Joe’s parents owned the drugstore on 97th and Madison in Manhattan, and after Joe’s death Miller often visited them there.
It so happens that this was the very drugstore that my best friend Susie Shechter and I frequented as often as we could. It’s even possible that we went when Miller was there, though how could we have known? We went there because that particular drugstore had the largest selection of comic books in the neighbourhood, and Susie and I were crazy about comics.
Susie’s father was a public defender and so, like Miller, was also exempted from the draft. He and his wife and daughter lived in a very modest yet modern one-room apartment which was divided into sections by four white floor-to-ceiling columns. There was no privacy to speak of, but Susie and I lived in a world of our own. Propped against the column that marked out her space – her bed, a wardrobe and a small wooden desk – were neat stacks of comic books almost as high as we were. These were Susie’s treasures, which she eagerly shared with me. We especially loved the Archie comics; Sheena, Queen of the Jungle; and, most prized of all, Wonder Woman. Every weekend and after school we sat cross-legged on her parents’ polished floor and devoured every one we could find in the pile.
There were no Wonder Woman movies then, or television shows. There were only her comics and the regular newspaper strip that appeared in ‘the funnies’ on Sundays. She first appeared in 1942, the year before my friendship with Susie blossomed in the kindergarten class at P.S. No. 6 in Manhattan. By that time the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor and America was in the war. Looking back on that idyllic comic heaven, I came to believe that Wonder Woman was somehow connected with the war effort.
Well, she was, and she wasn’t.
If it’s hardly surprising that a generation of little girls like Susie Shechter and me grew up as feminism’s so-called ‘second wave’, it’s odd that Wonder Woman’s creator was a man. I did learn that she was the brainchild of a male psychologist with undoubted feminist sympathies, but not much was else was known about him. Then in 2016, Jill Lepore, an historian of note and New Yorker staff writer, published her fascinating study, The Secret History of Wonder Woman. The book, with its many illustrations from the comic, takes us through Wonder Woman’s complex genealogy to her birth in 1942. According to Lepore, Wonder Woman’s origins are clearly embedded in the suffragist movement, but again, paradoxically, the focus of her history is a man. So who was this liberated father of Wonder Woman – who, in effect, was her modern Zeus?
William Moulton Marston was born in New England with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth. His father had inherited the large faux-ancestral home called Moulton Castle, and the family’s wealth came from manufacturing fine woollen cloth for men’s suits. In a household of sisters, Marston was his mother’s cherished only son, and his feminism can be attributed in part to that. He never stopped loving women, or believing that once they were released from their patriarchal chains the world could only improve. He was one of those men whom today we call ‘champions’, a David Morrison of his time. But unlike our champions, who appear to seep respectability from every pore (Morrison is a retired Australian Army chief), Marston was a true maverick – libertarian, bohemian, polymath and eccentric all rolled into one.
In America of the early 1900s, psychology was new and influential. At Harvard, where Marston got his undergraduate degree, psychology was an offshoot of the philosophy department, where it had gained prominence under the aegis of Henry James’s older brother William. At first Marston was an indifferent student, a campus playboy, but psychology lit a spark in him and soon became his passion. Even before graduating he perfected what is credited as the world’s first lie detector test, which traced telling fluctuations in a subject’s systolic blood pressure. More of this to come.
Marston’s wife, Sadie Elizabeth Holloway, later known as Betty Marston, was a feminist and a suffragist – a New Woman, as some called it, and a friend of hers was the niece of the birth control campaigner Margaret Sanger. But as Lepore explains:
New Women like Sadie Holloway held every expectation of
political equality with men. They expected to control their
fertility, to forge relations of equality with the men they
married, if they chose to marry, and to rise to the top of
their professions, whether or not they also chose to have
children. Quite how all this could be accomplished was
less clear; apparently, equality with men required servants,
equality for the few.’
As Lepore unravels his feminist connections, it soon becomes obvious that Marston’s relations with women were not all strictly platonic. At some stage in his married life, his home became a menage à trois, which was one solution to Betty’s predicament, but may have been problematic for the woman who did the dusting. More so perhaps for one of his children, who grew up unaware that the man he knew as Bill was actually his father. For all this, the arrangement seems to have been a successful one, if for many years a tightly held secret.
William Marston was energetic and ambitious, but his professional life faltered as he overextended himself. Ructions in the Harvard philosophy faculty and his arguably ill-judged involvement in a landmark legal case led to his arrest for fraud and, despite his qualifications, the loss of permanent work. For the rest of his life what living he made was patchy. His enthusiasms were varied; his resourcefulness was a marvel. While still a student at Harvard, he churned out scripts for the burgeoning movie industry. After the war, with the proliferation of police departments and investigative agencies came a growing interest in lie detection. But while Marston held great hopes for his invention, these were dashed when a newer and more sophisticated machine was adopted widely instead. Then, in the thirties, as the world sped towards yet another war and Superman and Batman appeared on the scene to save us, Marston saw his chance. Wonder Woman was born.
For a while, as she grew in popularity, up there with Superman and Batman in the comic stratosphere, she was Marston’s bread and butter, contributing to the maintenance of his burgeoning household. But after the war, when women lost their wartime roles and found themselves restricted again to ‘home duties’, feminist superheroes went out of fashion and that source of cash went too. Fortunately Betty had never stopped working and was the main support for him and the children and at least one of his de facto partners until he died, aged fifty-three.
Jill Lepore has given us a thoughtful and compelling biography, and like the best biographies, the story goes beyond that of an extraordinary individual. She shines a light onto a hidden facet of American life, and traces the way in which popular culture expresses, if simplistically or distortedly, its more serious social preoccupations and developments. It took only a quarter of a century for Wonder Woman to make her comeback - when feminism itself burst out of the shadows in the 1970s. If social forces set back the movement and the struggle for women’s rights lay dormant for a while, it never was entirely moribund. Susie Schecter and I saw each other only once after I left New York and she came to visit me in California, years before I left again for Australia, and I have no idea what’s happened to her. But I haven’t the slightest doubt that she too became a lifelong feminist, riding the crest of that second wave, though I could never bring myself to watch Wonder Woman her on television, or a Wonder Woman movie. Wonder Woman was my comic book inspiration, and that’s what she’ll always be for me.
Check out Sara's critically acclaimed masterpiece 'As The Lonely Fly'.