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

October 23, 2014

The Secret History of Wonder Woman — more news, many reviews

Jill Lepore's new book The Secret History of Wonder Woman has gotten a lot more press since my last roundup a week ago. The book is the most thorough account yet of how Wonder Woman originated in a lifelong poly triad to promote William Moulton Marston's vision of utopian feminism and kinky free love — with help and role modeling from his wife Elizabeth Holloway and their partner Olive Byrne. Lepore argues (unconvincingly, I think) that Wonder Woman was the bridge between the feminist movements of the early 1900s and the 1960s.

Wonder Woman had her purpose stripped away after Marston died in 1947 (DC Comics rebuffed Holloway's attempt to take over the writing), and this is surely why her many portrayals since then have been so confused and contradictory — compared to her DC contemporaries Superman and Batman, who have kept their identities intact. Yet another version of Wonder Woman will get her own superhero movie in 2017.

● On The Atlantic's website, Noah Berlatsky scrutinizes Marston's poly menage: The Free Love Experiment That Created Wonder Woman (Oct. 17). He takes a more critical view than Katha Pollitt does in her article for the print edition of The Atlantic, which went online just three days earlier: Wonder Woman’s Kinky Feminist Roots (Oct. 14). No matter how well the Marston-Holloway-Byrne triad turned out for everyone, it had a coercive and unhappy beginning, as Lepore turned up in newly available papers. Berlatsky writes:

Marston's personal life also raises questions about his feminist commitments. In the first place, he met Byrne when she was his graduate student; it's not entirely clear if he started sleeping with her while she was under his supervision, but if he did, that certainly raises ethical questions. The way he introduced Byrne into his marriage is also disturbing; according to Lepore's archival research, Marston told his wife that she could either accept Byrne into their marriage, or Marston would leave. "Holloway was devastated," Lepore writes. "She walked out the door and walked, without stopping, for six hours."

Another interesting excerpt drawing from new material:

Jill Lepore
Lepore reports... that the Marstons had a polyamorous relationship with another woman, Marjorie W. Huntley, before they met Byrne, and that she remained an on-and-off member of the family long after Byrne arrived, helping out with the inking and lettering of the Wonder Woman comics in the 1940s, and occasionally staying with Holloway and Byrne after Marston's death. Further, Huntley, Byrne, Holloway, and Marston all participated in what Lepore describes as a "sex cult" in 1925-26 at the home of Marston's aunt Carolyn. Participants celebrated female sexual power, dominance, submission and love by forming “Love Units” consisting of multiple partners, including Love Girls who "do not … practice … concealment of the love organs" (translated from New Age, that means they didn't wear clothes.) Among the topics of discussion at these meetings was the work of Olive Byrne's aunt, Margaret Sanger — and one of Lepore's central accomplishments is to show just how close Byrne and Sanger were, and to describe how Wonder Woman sprang from an intellectual milieu that included both New Age free love and a radical commitment to reproductive rights.

Cover of Wonder Woman comic, issue #1
1942: Storming a German trench.
As Lepore says, Wonder Woman was born out of "feminist utopia" and "the struggle for women's rights." But Marston's vision of feminist utopia — complete with love leaders, dominance, and bondage — doesn't necessarily look like the feminist utopia most people imagine today. Marston — and Sanger too, according to Lepore — believed that women were purer and better than men. That's a view that sits very uncomfortably with the current feminist movement, which often (and with justice) sees discussions of feminine purity as an excuse to restrict what women are allowed to do. Feminist success, in our day, is generally seen in terms of empowering women to achieve equality with men — not in terms of a naturally superior femaleness, the purity of which will transform society spiritually and ethically.

Harper's magazine (The Atlantic's direct competitor) reviews Lepore's book in its November issue. The review is only available in the print edition and online for print subscribers, but the blurb says,

Even in the seeming feminist doldrums of the 1940s, there was a contained but noisy demand for birth control from the working women who kept the industries going while the men were at war. Surely that shift could only have ended in liberation and financial, social, and sexual equality for women — but it didn’t. What we did get from the 1940s was the advent of Wonder Woman, one man’s vision of, and later several men’s caricature of, female liberation.

Cover of Wonder Woman comic, issue #7
1943, 29 years before the Ms. magazine cover.
● At SFGate, a website of the San Francisco Chronicle:

By Audrey Bilger

...The story behind Wonder Woman is sensational, spellbinding and utterly improbable.... An extraordinarily gifted huckster, Marston was a self-proclaimed feminist who believed women should — and would someday — rule the world. He insisted that the underlying meaning of all Wonder Woman stories was “a great movement now under way — the growth in the power of women.” According to Lepore, he “wanted the kids who read his comics to imagine a woman as president of the United States.”

...[Lepore's] partial list of source material provides an indication of the Herculean labor she performed:
“[T]housands of pages of documents, manuscripts and typescripts, photographs and drawings, letters and postcards, criminal court records, notes scribbled in the margins of books, legal briefs, medical records, unpublished memoirs, story drafts, sketches, student transcripts, birth certificates, adoption papers, military records, family albums, scrapbooks, lecture notes, FBI files, movie scripts, the carefully typed meeting minutes of a sex cult, and tiny diaries written in secret code.”

As a gender studies professor who has spent more than two decades introducing young people to feminism — with each new crop of students discovering afresh that the struggle for women’s rights has a rich and varied history — I am acutely aware of the difficulty of keeping past accomplishments alive. Lepore notes, “One tragedy of feminism in the twentieth century is the way its history seemed to be forever disappearing.”... By the ’70s, long after the death of Marston, most of the feminism of the Wonder Woman comics had been watered down considerably, and she seemed like an odd choice of icons for the burgeoning late-20th century women’s movement. Had her true history been known then, perhaps it could have served as a caution for the so-called second-wavers and beyond: Constant vigilance is required to maintain the goals of feminism. Amnesia equals lost ground....

Read the whole review (Oct. 22).

● In Entertainment Weekly:

By Melissa Maerz

Wonder Woman used to be a warrior princess. Now she's often just a pretty girl. When director Zack Snyder released an image of Gal Gadot as the Amazonian princess in the upcoming Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, one critic quipped, "During production, we had to ask ourselves so many tough questions. Like, for instance, which size-zero bikini model is best suited to play this strapping superhuman?" Only a few years ago, David E. Kelley wrote a Wonder Woman pilot that found the freedom fighter crying over a boy while eating ice cream....

The whole article (Oct. 15).

● In the Los Angeles Times:

By Laura Hudson

...After years of sifting through unpublished letters and diaries, Lepore has written the authoritative work on William Moulton Marston, a Harvard-educated psychologist best known for two things: inventing the lie detector test and creating the world's most famous superheroine.

Wonder Woman as rendered by her first artist, Harry G. Peter, for
Marston's 1943 essay "Why 100,000,000 Americans Read Comics."

Marston advocated fiercely and often radically in his comics for the recognition of women's strength while simultaneously delighting in their bondage and submission. But the most irresistible irony lies in the revelation that the father of the modern polygraph was himself a prodigious liar....

The dual inspirations for Wonder Woman, Holloway and Byrne were tremendously bright women who not only shared Marston's free-thinking ideals but provided the labor necessary to maintain his lifestyle. Although he tried his hand at everything from academia to motion pictures, Marston was something of a chronic failure; it was Holloway who served as the primary breadwinner for the family while Byrne raised the children — neatly dividing the superheroic double shift of the "modern woman" between them.

...Although Lepore isn't the first writer to uncover Marston's polyamory or the less-than-subtle kinks of his comics, The Secret History of Wonder Woman is the fullest and most fascinating portrait ever created about the complicated, unconventional family that inspired one of the most enduring feminist icons in pop culture.

The whole review (Oct. 23).

● A disapproving piece in the New York Times:

Her Past Unchained

By Dwight Gardner

Jill Lepore’s new book, “The Secret History of Wonder Woman,” is a long, strange thing to chew on.

On the one hand, the story it relates has more uplift than Wonder Woman’s invisible airplane or her eagle-encrusted red bustier. It’s a yea-saying tale about how this comic book character, created in 1941, remade American feminism and had her roots in the ideas and activism of Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood.

On the other hand, “The Secret History of Wonder Woman” is fundamentally a biography of Wonder Woman’s larger-than-life and vaguely creepy male creator, William Moulton Marston (1893-1947). He was a Harvard graduate, a feminist and a psychologist who invented the lie detector test. He was also a huckster, a polyamorist (one and sometimes two other women lived with him and his wife), a serial liar and a bondage super-enthusiast.

How into fettering was Marston? Allow Ms. Lepore to count the ways, in a long but fascinating passage that shows off her neatnik prose style.

“Not a comic book in which Wonder Woman appeared, and hardly a page, lacked a scene of bondage. In episode after episode, Wonder Woman is chained, bound, gagged, lassoed, tied, fettered and manacled. She’s locked in an electric cage. She’s winched into a straitjacket, from head to toe. Her eyes and mouth are taped shut. She’s roped and then coffined in a glass box and dropped into the ocean. She’s locked in a bank vault. She’s tied to railroad tracks. She’s pinned to a wall. Once, so that she can be both entirely bound and movable, her fettered feet are welded to roller skates. ‘Great girdle of Aphrodite!’ she cries. ‘Am I tired of being tied up!’ ”

...Wonder Woman suffered indignities. When, in 1942, she became the first female superhero to join the Justice Society of America, alongside Batman, the Green Lantern and others, she was merely its secretary. But Ms. Lepore is pointed about how Marston’s comics attacked political issues.

Wonder Woman led political rallies over a milk-pricing racket. She had an adventure involving a textile workers’ strike inspired partly by Sanger’s labor activism. Wonder Woman protested the low wages of female employees at an elite department store. These employees are ecstatic to hear, “Girls, starting now your salaries are doubled!”

She was always an imperfect feminist icon, however. “Who needs consciousness-raising and equal pay,” Ms. Lepore writes, “when you’re an Amazon with an invisible plane.”

...Looming over it all is Marston, a big, odd, frisky fellow who comes to seem like Alfred Kinsey’s well-meaning but weirdo cousin.

The whole review (Oct. 23).

● In the Boston Globe:

By Buzzy Jackson

Who is Wonder Woman? She is, of course, the Amazonian superhero fighting for women’s rights, with a secret agenda that included securing access to birth control, free love, and the importance of erotic bondage — preferably chains — in uniting two (or more) lovers in polyamory....

The first half of “The Secret History of Wonder Woman’’ tells the story of these three and the world of radical politics in which they lived. They were activists in the struggles for women’s suffrage, access to birth control, and equal rights of the early 1900s, participating in bohemian Greenwich Village salons in which socialism, androgyny, and free love were explored.

They also shared a belief in what Lepore describes as a “cult of female sexual power,” a vision of a woman-centric world not too different from the kind you’d find in Amazonia, Wonder Woman’s hometown. It was a thrilling time; women were granted the right to vote in 1919, and the Equal Rights Amendment was introduced in Congress in 1923. The prospect of legal gender equality seemed inevitable.

...What Lepore does so well is to show how Wonder Woman’s career mirrored the hopes, progress, and eventual disappointments of the American women’s movement in the 20th century. When American women began entering the workforce during World War II, Wonder Woman was at her strongest, battling evil and refusing to settle down and get married (Amazonian law forbade it). After the war ended and women were hustled back into the home, Wonder Woman’s power likewise faded.

The big changes took place after Marston died in 1947 and other writers took over the series. No longer a crime fighter, now she was “a babysitter, a fashion model, and a movie star. She [also] wanted, desperately, to marry Steve.” By the late 1960s she had lost her superpowers altogether. Although she was reclaimed by feminists in the early 1970s and appeared on the cover of Ms. magazine’s first issue under the banner, “Wonder Woman For President,” her status as a feminist icon withered.

Marston’s widows lived into the 1990s and remained devoted to each other for the rest of their lives. They “never broke their silence” about the truth of their relationship or of Wonder Woman’s radical past. As women who were young when the Equal Rights Amendment was introduced to Congress in 1923, you have to wonder what they thought about the fact that it was never ratified. And were they depressed by the fact that Americans were still arguing about abortion a century after Margaret Sanger began fighting for women’s reproductive rights? There’s a new Wonder Woman movie coming in 2017. If Lepore’s “secret history” has proved one thing, it’s that at least so far each era has gotten the Wonder Woman it deserves.

The whole review (Oct. 23).

More to come I'm sure. The book's official publication isn't until next Tuesday.




Anonymous yukbon said...

I first heard the details of the story via an interview Kevin Smith did with Grant Morrison in 2013, who'd just redone the Wonder Woman comic. It's here, about 30 minutes in, if you're curious (and/or enjoy a fantastic scottish accent). There's also a Guardian piece on Morrison's resuscitation of the WW comic here, including some commentary on the feminist/poly/matriarchal origins.

October 24, 2014 8:51 AM  

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