Polyamory in the News!
. . . by Alan M.

September 20, 2014

The New Yorker on Wonder Woman's utopian feminist poly roots

Made plastic. (New Yorker / Grant Cornett)
The New Yorker is known for deep journalism on out-of-the-way topics. Now that Wonder Women is about to make her first (and still only partial) debut into the movies, writer Jill Lepore digs into her real-life origins deeper than I've seen before.

You may know that Wonder Woman was created (in 1941) by William Moulton Marston, part of a lifelong FFM poly triad, to promote his vision that powerful, liberated women would save humanity. He modeled her partly on his two partners and also, it turns out, on the aunt of one of them: birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger. His grand ideas about open love and the liberating power of bondage were even more radical back in those days. They may be part of why Wonder Woman has had such an awkward and disjointed history, and conflicting character treatments, ever since Marston's death in 1947.

The Last Amazon

Wonder Woman returns.

By Jill Lepore

...A press release explained, “ ‘Wonder Woman’ was conceived by Dr. Marston to set up a standard among children and young people of strong, free, courageous womanhood; 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” — because “the only hope for civilization is the greater freedom, development and equality of women in all fields of human activity.” Marston put it this way: “Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.”

...To the consternation of Wonder Woman fans, there has never been a Wonder Woman film. This is about to change. Last December, Warner Bros. announced that Wonder Woman would have a role in an upcoming Superman-and-Batman film, and that, in a three-movie deal, Gal Gadot, a lithe Israeli model, had signed on to play the part. There followed a flurry of comments about her anatomical insufficiency for the role.... One critic tweeted this suggestion for a title: “BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN WITH ALSO SOME WONDER WOMAN IN THERE SO SIT DOWN LADIES WE’RE TREATING YOU FINE: THE MOVIE.” Warner Bros. has yet to dispel this impression....

The much cited difficulties regarding putting Wonder Woman on film... aren’t chiefly about Wonder Woman, or comic books, or superheroes, or movies. They’re about politics. Superman owes a debt to science fiction, Batman to the hardboiled detective. Wonder Woman’s debt is to feminism. She’s the missing link in a chain of events that begins with the woman-suffrage campaigns of the nineteen-tens and ends with the troubled place of feminism a century later. Wonder Woman is so hard to put on film because the fight for women’s rights has gone so badly....

Wonder Woman’s origin story comes straight out of feminist utopian fiction. In the nineteenth century, suffragists, following the work of anthropologists, believed that something like the Amazons of Greek myth had once existed, a matriarchy that predated the rise of patriarchy. “The period of woman’s supremacy lasted through many centuries,” Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote in 1891. In the nineteen-tens, this idea became a staple of feminist thought. The word “feminism,” hardly ever used in the United States before 1910, was everywhere by 1913....

In 1917, when motion pictures were still a novelty and the United States had only just entered the First World War, Sanger starred in a silent film called “Birth Control”; it was banned. A century of warfare, feminism, and cinema later, superhero movies — adaptations and updates of mid-twentieth-century comic books whose plots revolve around anxieties about mad scientists, organized crime, tyrannical super-states, alien invaders, misunderstood mutants, and world-ending weapons — are the super-blockbusters of the last superpower left standing. No one knows how Wonder Woman will fare onscreen: there’s hardly ever been a big-budget superhero movie starring a female superhero. But more of the mystery lies in the fact that Wonder Woman’s origins have been, for so long, so unknown. It isn’t only that Wonder Woman’s backstory is taken from feminist utopian fiction. It’s that, in creating Wonder Woman, William Moulton Marston was profoundly influenced by early-twentieth-century suffragists, feminists, and birth-control advocates and that, shockingly, Wonder Woman was inspired by Margaret Sanger, who, hidden from the world, was a member of Marston’s family.

Marston with Elizabeth Holloway (seated) and Olive Byrne.
...In 1926, Olive Byrne, then twenty-two, moved in with Marston and Holloway; they lived as a threesome, “with love making for all,” as Holloway later said. Olive Byrne is the mother of two of Marston’s four children; the children had three parents. “Both Mommies and poor old Dad” is how Marston put it.

Holloway said that Marston, Holloway, and Byrne’s living arrangements began as an idea: “A new way of living has to exist in the minds of men before it can be realized in actual form.” It had something to do with Sanger’s “Woman and the New Race.” Holloway tried to explain what she’d taken away from reading it: “The new race will have a far greater love capacity than the current one and I mean physical love as well as other forms.” And it had something to do with what Havelock Ellis, a British doctor who was one of Margaret Sanger’s lovers, called “the erotic rights of women.” Ellis argued that the evolution of marriage as an institution had resulted in the prohibiting of female sexual pleasure, which was derided as wanton and abnormal. Erotic equality, he insisted in 1918, was no less important than political equality, if more difficult to achieve. “The right to joy cannot be claimed in the same way as one claims the right to put a voting paper in a ballot box,” he wrote. “That is why the erotic rights of women have been the last of all to be attained.”

But there was more to it. For Holloway, the arrangement solved what, in the era of the New Woman, was known as the “woman’s dilemma”: hardly a magazine was sold, in those years, that didn’t feature an article that asked, “Can a Woman Run a Home and a Job, Too?”...

Read the whole fascinating article, nearly 8,000 words (issue date Sept. 22, 2014).

Past Wonder Woman post, with links to other articles and old WW comics.

Update Sept. 25: The October issue of The Smithsonian, a glossy history magazine published by the Smithsonian Institution, has an article by the same author, Jill Lepore: The Surprising Origin Story of Wonder Woman. The intro says Lepore is a Harvard history professor whose "new book, The Secret History of Wonder Woman, comes out this month." (Book cover at right.)

Lepore's Smithsonian article has such a superficial and sensational tone compared to her one in The New Yorker that I wonder whether editors had a very heavy hand in one of them or both.




Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another really interesting one... am going to check out the long article. :)

September 21, 2014 7:47 PM  
Blogger marie nadine pierre said...

Jah love. Give thanks and praises for sharing. This is a really interesting article. I am so very interested in the erotic power of women. Audre Lorde wrote about this and I am thrilled to learn about a polyamorous link. I will certainly read the article. And thanks for letting us know that one of my all time favorite supersheras was based on a polyamorous threesome. I just wish that she had black sisters in her amazon world. I used to love it when she visited that world. Blessed love.

September 21, 2014 8:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had a mixed reaction to this. It is somewhat discouraging to see how closeted they were throughout their lives. I know it was a different era though,and they faced plenty of discrimination even while being closeted. I'm also boggled that they were ABLE to maintain a closet after Olive had two of the triad's four children... and did I read a quote from one of the children that even THEY were kept in the dark about their own family dynamic? How is that even possible?


September 22, 2014 1:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Additionally, we haven't come that far as a society in making things easier for working women. I maintain that the FMF triad is still the most appealing configuration for conventional couples opening their relationship because working women DO need a "wife". We're burnt out on juggling the full-time job and the expectation that we'll also effortlessly maintain a beautiful home and raise great kids. Good freaking luck. I want a "wife" too.


September 22, 2014 1:30 PM  
Blogger Alan said...

> I'm also boggled that they were ABLE
> to maintain a closet after Olive had
> two of the triad's four children.

I think it would have been *easier* to maintain the closet back then.

For one thing, extended families under one roof were common, especially with spinster relatives who'd been taken in (before women could usually support themselves) and did child care. Everyone was used to seeing this in their neighborhood.

Second, alternative sexual relationships were so far off respectable peoples' radar that the idea might never even occur to many. They could stay hidden in plain sight. The same way that a family's "confirmed bachelor" wasn't suspected of being homosexual (or if suspected it was *never* mentioned), and women living together in longterm "Boston marriages" were assumed to be roommates sharing rent.

There were an awful lot of naive people in those days, the more so the more respectable your upbringing was.

September 22, 2014 3:05 PM  

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