Sunday, May 17, 2015

Books – The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore

One thing about Wonder Woman creator and writer William Moulton Marston; the man was a freak. A well-educated Ph.D., Marston was the inventor of an early version of the lie detector and pushed many crackpot theories over the course of his life. This book is the story of his education, non-traditional family life and the creation of Wonder Woman.

Writer Jill Lepore is a History professor at Harvard and a staff writer for the New York Times. Despite that, her research seems true and well reasoned. Kidding! Lepore was given unprecedented access to Marston’s files and letters, and what emerges is a rounded portrait of the man, his life and his greatest creation.

William Moulton Marston
Curious and intelligent, Marston was involved in the beginnings of the feminist movement early in his life. He thought the world would be better if run by women, and looked at women as full equals in every way. He married his high school sweetheart, Sadie Holloway, and they took turns going to college. Marston wound up with a Ph.D., Holloway a Masters Degree. Marston never held a job more than a year or two (except as a comic book writer, strangely). He worked for various colleges as a lecturer, wrote articles for major magazines and even spent time as a staff psychologist for a Hollywood movie studio. This is where it gets weird. As a young professor lecturing to college students, Marston met and fell in love with the boyish Olive Byrne, one of his students. Byrne was the niece of suffrage and family planning activist Margaret Sanger, who was destined to become quite close to the Marston family. Marston arrived home one day and told his wife Sadie that Olive was joining their family as his “other” wife, or he would just leave her and shack up with Olive anyway. Astoundingly, Sadie accepted this arrangement. Awkward at first, the women actually became close friends who lived together until they died many decades later.

Wonder Woman in Chains
Writing as "Charles Marston," Marston put all of his progressive and unusual (for the time) feminist ideas into Wonder Woman, the first successful female superhero. Wonder Woman was an instant hit, spawning several titles of her own (Wonder Woman and Sensation Comics, which she headlined) and a newspaper comic strip, which Marston wrote for years. Under Marston’s tenure, Wonder Woman was controversial for his use of bondage imagery. Every issue, Wonder Woman was bound; chains, ropes, handcuffs, complex bondage knots. DC editors would tell him to lay off; he would outright refuse and double up. Lepore points out that Marston had a goal other than titillation. Wonder Woman was never tortured or trapped by chains; she always escaped or threw them off. Marston was showing that chains could never hold back the strength or power of femininity. Personally I always thought Marston was obsessed with bondage and must have practiced it at home, especially with his unusual home life. But Lepore could find no evidence of this, and several of Marston’s children expressly denied it—saying their liberated “mothers” would never have stood for it.

Marston died in 1947, not dreaming of the longevity of his creation. Since that time, Wonder Woman has indeed been the most successful and licensed super heroine in history; taking her place in the DC Comics “trinity” of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. The Secret History of Wonder Woman is extremely well researched and written, and brings out many more details of Marston, his wives and children, and the early adventures of Wonder Woman. Their story is full of history, especially of the early feminist movement, and is interesting to all audiences, not just comic book fans.

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars


  1. Interesting. Never suspected such a fascinating story behind the story. Makes me strongly suspect that he might have had a thing for Betty Page, and styled Wonder Woman, to some extent, on her. Whether or not his wives indulged him, he might still have harbored the fantasies. Just theorizing.

  2. DAMN FACTS!!! Leave it to two minutes of Googling to 86 my theorizing. Appears Marston died years before Betty hit the scene. She would have made a great Wonder Woman though.

  3. It's true Marston and Page didn't overlap on the public stage. But Page would have made a great Wonder Woman! I don't think Marston could be so devoted to bondage and chains in Wonder Woman (and believe me, I've read those early stories and he was devoted) and not have harbored some strong fantasies himself, feminist or not. Whether his "wives" would participate would be another thing entirely. The evidence seems to say no.