Far more than an occasionally salacious story of a comic strip

Fascinating bit of comic book history in this past weekend’s WSJ Bookshelf.  I had no idea the character did a 180 when her creator died and editorial control passed to a new publisher who hated the idea of female equality, and then another 180 with the arrival of Ms. magazine.

How the magic lasso originated in the creator’s mind is a fun little tidbit too.

indexWonder Woman for President

A brainy Amazon. A Nazi-fighting feminist. A single gal. How Wonder Woman went from saving the world to searching for a husband. A review of ‘The Secret History of Wonder Woman,’ by Jill Lepore.

By Carol Tavris
Oct. 24, 2014 4:04 p.m. ET

Wonder Woman is the most popular female superhero of all time. Created in 1941, “beautiful as Aphrodite, wise as Athena, stronger than Hercules and swifter than Mercury,” she was an Amazon who came to America to fight for peace, justice and women’s rights, sacrificing immortality for the love of her rescued pilot Steve Trevor. “Her gods were female, and so were her curses,” Jill Lepore reminds us. “Great Hera!” she would exclaim. “Suffering Sappho!” Poor Steve was forever begging her to marry him, but she had villains to conquer in America and fascists to combat abroad.

Ms. Lepore’s lively, surprising and occasionally salacious history is far more than the story of a comic strip. The author, a professor of history at Harvard, places Wonder Woman squarely in the story of women’s rights in America—a cycle of rights won, lost and endlessly fought for again. Like many illuminating histories, this one shows how issues we debate today were under contention just as vigorously decades ago, including birth control, sex education, the ways in which women can combine work and family, and the effects of “violent entertainment” on children. “The tragedy of feminism in the twentieth century is the way its history seemed to be forever disappearing,” Ms. Lepore writes. Her superb narrative brings that history vividly into the present, weaving individual lives into the sweeping changes of the century.

Wonder Woman was created by William Moulton Marston, an intermittently employed psychologist who regarded her as “psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who, I believe, should rule the world.” Marston, born in 1893, had been strongly influenced by the suffragist, feminist and birth-control movements that were gaining momentum in the early 1900s and 1910s. “Wonder Woman is no ordinary comic-book character because Marston was no ordinary man and his family was no ordinary family,” writes Ms. Lepore. That’s for sure. Marston’s first major claim to fame, in 1915, was as inventor of the earliest lie detector, which measured systolic blood pressure; lies and deception became his professional and personal trademark.

Marston kept his private life secret, and—well, no wonder. He lived with his wife, Elizabeth Holloway; his lover, Olive Byrne; his four children (two by each woman); and intermittently with another lover, Marjorie Wilkes Huntley. All were advocates for women’s equality, free love and contraception. After Marston died in 1947, Olive and Elizabeth continued to live together until Olive died in 1990, at 86; Elizabeth died in 1993, at 100. They had lived together 64 years.

Marston arrived at Harvard in 1911, where he joined the Harvard Men’s League for Woman Suffrage. Told by university officials that they could invite a female speaker only if she was opposed to female suffrage, the League rebelled and invited the British suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst. Pankhurst and her fellow protesters had been sent to prison for chaining themselves to a fence outside 10 Downing Street in London. Marston was enthralled by hearing Pankhurst speak. “He never forgot Emmeline Pankhurst and her shackles, either,” Ms. Lepore notes. Wonder Woman would have only one weakness: She loses her strength if a man binds her in chains.

While Marston was at Harvard, his childhood friend Elizabeth Holloway attended Mount Holyoke. (“Holloway” and “Holyoke” inspired Holliday College, where Wonder Woman attended lectures by antifeminist professors like Professor Manly and Dr. Psycho.) The couple constantly shared ideas, plans and projects. They married after graduation and went to separate law schools (the “dumb bunnies” at Harvard wouldn’t accept women, Holloway grumbled).

Marston was “awesomely cocky,” Ms. Lepore observes, offering his services in lie detection to the government, the military and law enforcement. But he was invariably spurned. Yet it was his effort to be accepted as an expert witness in lie detection, in the 1923 case of Frye v. United States, that became the basis of the Frye standard for the admission of scientific evidence. The judge ruled that “science has not sufficiently developed detection of deception by blood pressure to make it a useable instrument in a court of law.” Marston was crushed, but he would have revenge later on—when, in one comic book, a judge expresses his gratitude to Wonder Woman for using her magic lasso, which makes anyone caught in it tell the truth.

Ms. Lepore devotes many pages to the influence on Marston and Holloway of Margaret Sanger and her sister, Ethel Byrne, both of whom had been imprisoned for breaking laws against promoting birth control. Ethel went on a hunger strike and was the first woman in the country to be subjected to forced feeding. She was brave but had no patience for motherhood, abandoning her two toddlers to her in-laws. The daughter, Olive, never forgave her.

How does the Sanger story lead to Wonder Woman? Margaret Sanger married a millionaire who paid for her niece Olive’s education at Tufts, where Olive took a class that Marston taught. They became lovers, and after her graduation Marston gave Holloway a choice: If she didn’t let Olive live with them, he would leave her. Holloway walked out but soon returned. She agreed to the arrangement but wanted something too: He could have his mistress; she would have the freedom to pursue a career. And Olive, who yearned for a family to ease the loneliness of her mother’s abandonment, would raise the children. Talk about solving women’s work-family dilemma!

The threesome lived and worked together, cheerfully blurring the credits of who wrote what among their books, papers and ideas for Wonder Woman. Holloway was often the only one bringing in a steady income. But no outsider knew about this arrangement, and the adults kept secrets within the family as well. Olive invented a “husband” who had fathered her two sons before conveniently dying; the children did not learn the truth for decades. When she made up a wedding date for her “marriage,” she began wearing a pair of wide-banded bracelets she never took off—perhaps her equivalent of a wedding ring. Wonder Woman would wear the same ones.

Superman debuted in 1938, Batman in 1939, and soon children all over America were devouring comic books. Grown-ups worried. Comic books would “spawn only a generation of Storm Troopers,” predicted poet Stanley Kunitz. Time ran a story: “Are Comics Fascist?” Marston, interviewed by his lover Olive for Family Circle magazine, reassured readers that comics were pure wish fulfillment. The threat of torture is harmless, he said; if the heroine is tied to the stake, everyone knows the hero will rescue her.

Because of his reassuring position on comics, Marston became the consulting psychologist for DC Comics, home to Superman and Batman, and he convinced the publisher it was time for a female superhero to counter the “comics’ worst offense . . . their bloodcurdling masculinity.” (“In some versions of the story,” notes Ms. Lepore, “this was Holloway’s idea.”) An editor and artist were brought on board; Marston began writing. His editor was 24-year-old Sheldon Mayer, who had already worked in comics for years. “I hope you’ll call me up about any changes in the story, names, costumes or subject-matter,” Marston said to Mayer. “That’s your business. But let that theme [of feminism] alone, or drop the project.”

Wonder Woman was an immediate hit with boys as well as girls, leading every issue of DC’s Sensation Comics, which also included a four-page centerfold called “Wonder Women of History’”—biographies of exceptional women such as Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Madame Curie, Abigail Adams and Sacagawea. This insert was even distributed to public schools. Throughout the war, Wonder Woman, like her mortal counterparts, labored heroically for the cause. In a 1944 comic, she loses her strength and in a moment of weakness agrees to marry Steve. “[W]on’t you please let me be your secretary? . . . I’m ready to be your docile little wife!” she cries, bowing before him. But this turns out to have been a bad dream, from which she at last awakes. And then she goes back to work, saving the world.

At least until the war was over. In 1944, Marston was stricken with polio; he died of cancer in 1947. A new editor pushed out Holloway, who had hoped to maintain the character that she and Marston had created and nurtured. The new editor hated feminism and opposed female equality. He immediately abandoned the “Wonder Women of History” feature, replacing it with a series about weddings.

In the 1950s, many superheroes didn’t survive peacetime, giving way first to science-fiction and horror titles and then being subjected to the new moral codes, which emerged from a renewed panic that comics were harming children. “Wonder Woman grew weaker every year,” Ms. Lepore writes. She became a babysitter, a romance editor, a model, a movie star. Now she wanted desperately to marry Steve. She, like the millions of American women who had worked during the war, went home to become a wife.

In 1963, the Equal Pay act was passed.

In 1965, the Supreme Court declared contraception bans unconstitutional.

In 1972, Ms. magazine published its premiere issue, with Wonder Woman on the cover. She was back. The rest, as they say, is history.

—Ms. Tavris, a social psychologist, is the author of “The Mismeasure of Woman” (1992).

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