Invisible Airplane, Meet Glass Ceiling

William Moulton Marston, his two wives, and the feminist origins of Wonder Woman.

Illustration by Cece Bell

Nerds of the nation, fair warning: Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman is not a straight-ahead history of the confounding, contradictory character of the comics, that Amazing Amazon in star-spangled hot pants who fancies herself a warrior for peace. (If that’s the book you’re looking for, Poindexter, maybe start with Les Daniels’ gorgeously designed if dully titled 2000 coffee-table tome, Wonder Woman: The Complete History.)

Instead, the “secret history” of Lepore’s title turns out to be the character’s pre-history. With a defiantly unhurried ease, Lepore reconstructs the prevailing cultural mood that birthed the idea of Wonder Woman, carefully delineating the conceptual debt the character owes to early-20th-century feminism in general and the birth control movement in particular.

In this, she separates herself from comics historians, who in their zeal to chronicle the minutiae of four-color mythmaking have been generally content to waggle their eyebrows in the general direction of the weirder items on the résumé of William Moulton Marston, the man who dreamed up Wonder Woman: his invention of the lie detector, his psychological theories of “loving submission” (read: his fascination with bondage), his unusual family arrangement. (OK, yeah, especially that last thing, about which more in a bit.)

No, Lepore is all about the women in Marston’s life. This approach doesn’t take anything away from the man’s abiding oddness; instead, it cracks Marston open for fresh inspection, allowing us to see him in a new context, making connections that deepen our knowledge of, and enrich our grudging appreciation for, the squirrelly old freak.

The guy’s a great subject, no question: Marston studied experimental psychology at Harvard at a time when it was considered a new, still-green branch of philosophy. There he developed and breathlessly espoused theories of humanity’s basic emotions he would later parlay into work in Hollywood, advising filmmakers how to tell stories with resonance. His lifelong talent for self-promotion was shameless and, thus, boundless; he attempted to interpose himself and his lie detector on a famous criminal case (Frye v. the United States) so zealously that lie detectors were ruled inadmissible in court (a precedent that stands to this day), and he tirelessly hawked his precious machine by staging publicity stunts with nubile co-eds that would make William “The Tingler” Castle blush.

Privately, he was a man steeped in what some would call contradiction, others hypocrisy: a devout feminist who secretly presided over a harem, a passionate advocate for the exposure of deceit who trafficked habitually in lies. Marston had two wives, both of whom received university educations equal to his, though both were consigned to living in his professional shadow. Sadie Elizabeth Holloway was the public wife; his marriage to his former student Olive Byrne was kept a secret from the world. He fathered children with both women, though Byrne’s children were told their father had passed away. The unconventional brood lived happily together under one roof as Marston cycled through jobs—professor, lawyer, novelist, advertising copywriter—and Holloway’s publishing career supported the family. Byrne, who happened to be the niece of birth-control activist Margaret Sanger, looked after her untraditional home while netting herself a regular gig at Family Circle magazine espousing traditional home life. “In Family Circle,” notes Lepore, “Olive Byrne wrote her own kind of pulp: women’s pulp, mother’s pulp, homemaker’s pulp.”

In fact, Byrne did a hell of a lot more than that: With relish, Lepore excerpts a series of columns in which Byrne set out to burnish Marston’s spotty psychological reputation. In the columns, Byrne posed as the curious New York reporter who treks out to the suburbs to sit at the knee and absorb the wisdom of the great lie-detecting Dr. Marston in his home (her home!) while his kids (her kids!) frolic in the yard: “The children spied me first and drew back as children do in the presence of a stranger.” Lepore’s tone, here and elsewhere, is one of gentle bemusement: Seriously? she seems to say, with a touch of something like admiration.

And that’s important: Some of this material, especially with respect to Marston’s home life, has been covered before, lightly, by Daniels and other comics historians. But no one before Lepore has come at the man and his creation with such cool, clear-eyed determination—or with her access to family correspondence. Holloway and Byrne emerge as distinct, very different but equally fascinating women, which provides a clearer picture of the trio’s complicated and emotionally fraught living arrangement than ever before. The result is not a condemnation of Marston’s peculiarities, but a rigorous, unflinching, and long-overdue appraisal.

Jill Lepore
Jill Lepore.

Photo by Dari Michele

That’s because Lepore has ransacked private collections, public archives, and university libraries for everything she could find: tax forms, pay stubs, employment contracts, to say nothing of the stacks of yellowing comics and newspaper strips that first catapulted Marston’s defiantly odd, kinkily feminist superhero into the cultural ether in 1941. But gratifyingly, she’s not hung up on constantly reminding you of that. While the book’s dutiful bibliography, endnotes, and index collectively swallow up fully one-third of its 450 pages, Lepore emphatically positions herself between the reader and the long, tedious hours she’s clocked in dingy vaults and sub-basements: She’s done the work so we don’t have to.

Again and again, she distills the figures she writes about into clean, simple, muscular prose, making unequivocal assertions that carry a faint electric charge. In fiction, such sweeping summations can fall so thick on the ground as to be mistaken for lawn, but in history they attain a transgressive, downright badass swagger.

On Sadie Elizabeth Holloway, for example, Lepore writes: “She was fierce and she was picky. Mostly, she was fearless.” And later this: “She was stern and stoic and tight-lipped.” And also this, which is just a corker of a sentence: “She was bold; she was unflinching: she played field hockey.”

We spend so much time with Holloway and Byrne, in fact, that Princess Diana herself doesn’t really show up until we’re two-thirds of the way through the book. Once she arrives, Lepore ticks off the requisite secret-origin-of-the-secret-origin stuff comics nerds like me eat up with a big ol’ spoon: the back and forth over her costume design with the artist, Marston’s sundry struggles with the publisher to present his “strong feminine ideal” undoctored, and a particularly satisfying examination of how success spoiled Diana Prince.

Once she became a sensation, you see, Wonder Woman began to appear in other comics, some of which were written by authors who did not share Marston’s enlightened(-ish), albeit disquietingly bondage-heavy, ideas about feminine power. It took a while for Wonder Woman to be admitted into the Justice Society, for example, but once she made it in, that book’s writer insisted she simply take the meeting notes and hang back at HQ when danger threatened (“Unfortunately, as secretary and honorary member, I have to remain behind but I’ll be with you in spirit!”) Invisible airplane, meet glass ceiling.

And if you’ve ever seen Marston’s comics, and your brain is capable of interpreting the signals sent to it by your eyes, you’ve noticed how often Wonder Woman manages to get herself chained, shackled, tied, hogtied, and/or restrained in some way. This of course was no coincidence: Marston always maintained it was just a plot device to set up a given story’s climactic tableaux: Wonder Woman unchained! Reclaiming her power! Lepore, for her part, argues convincingly that Marston was simply drawing here on the propaganda imagery of the suffragist movement, though she tacitly acknowledges that something a bit less simple was going on by quoting letters from readers—Marston’s publisher included—who found the whole thing decidedly skeevy.

Lepore isn’t particularly interested in what came after Marston’s death in 1947: new writer Robert Kanigher’s wackadoo, disappointingly chauvinistic take on the character (suddenly Wonder Woman was mooning over Steve Trevor, instead of the other way around) gets some ink, as does Dr. Fredric Wertham’s public crusade against comic books. Turns out the combination of Marston’s B&D obsession and Wonder Woman’s go-to epithet “Suffering Sappho!” proved too juicy a target for Wertham to ignore. Go figure.

But you can feel Lepore easing up on the throttle in these slim closing chapters, as if reluctant to bring the full weight of her intellect to bear on material that has been so thoroughly covered elsewhere. Which is disappointing, as it undercuts one of her book’s key themes.

So how successful you find The Secret History of Wonder Woman will depend entirely on how much weight you assign to each of her multiple mission objectives, as laid out in the book’s brief introduction. “Wonder Woman,” she writes, “isn’t only an Amazonian princess with badass boots.” This is a true statement. Unequivocally, resolutely. If you tossed a Lasso of Truth around that sentence, or strapped it to Marston’s lie detector, it’d read clean. She continues:

She’s the missing link in a chain of events that begins with the woman suffrage campaigns of the 1910s and ends with the troubled place of feminism fully a century later. Feminism made Wonder Woman.

This argument represents the meat of the book, and the case Lepore lays out to support it is ironclad. A lot like Marston’s Wonder Woman, if you follow me. But she goes on: “And then Wonder Woman remade feminism, which hasn’t always been good for feminism.”

This is just a fascinating statement, but the argument she makes for it gets largely shunted to the book’s epilogue, which covers the late ’60s onward. We get a whistle-stop tour of some of the most culturally resonant developments in Wonder Woman’s history: her publisher’s ham-fisted decision to remove her powers and turn her into a kung fu–fighting jet-setter in a white pantsuit; Gloria Steinem’s rebuke of that decision and adoption of old-school, tiara-and-tatas Wonder Woman as Ms. magazine’s inaugural cover model (“Wonder Woman for President!”); the radical feminist backlash against Steinem and Wonder Woman by proxy; and DC Comics’ eventual decision to return the Amazing Amazon’s powers—along with her patriotic panties. Lepore’s insights here are perfectly solid, but in the end there’s just not enough of them in the slim 18 pages she devotes to this era to support a whopping great proclamation like “Wonder Woman remade feminism.”

She concludes the book’s rhetorical overture: “Superheroes, who are supposed to be better than everyone else, are excellent at clobbering people; they’re lousy at fighting for equality.” OK, well this, respectfully, is hogwash. It’s pernicious, widely accepted hogwash, granted, in our current age, which has managed to convince itself that for superheroes to be relevant they must be “realistic” (read: dour, gritty, punishingly literal). Lepore, like so many of us, has forgotten what superheroes are for.

The marvelous, magical thing about Wonder Woman—about superheroes as a species—is that as she entered the public consciousness, she stopped being Marston’s character and became an idea. It’s an idea that has grown larger and more faceted as writers and artists like George Pérez, Gail Simone, Greg Rucka, and Brian Azzarello add to it, as actresses like Shannon Farnon, Lynda Carter, and Susan Eisenberg bring it to life, as cosplayers and fanfic writers take it up and carry it further than the megacorporation that owns her likeness could ever begin to imagine.

Superheroes are not “lousy at fighting for equality.” In fact, it is exactly their status as symbols, as exquisitely distilled representations of our noblest ideals, that makes them perfectly suited to fight for things—for ideals—like truth, justice, and, yes, equality. They are, as she says, “better than everyone else.” That’s the whole point of them: They exist to inspire, to lift us into the mesosphere alongside them. They are flattering mirrors, showing us not as we are, but as we could be if we embrace their selfless example: Our best possible selves in bold, primary colors. With rockin’ abs.​

The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore. Knopf.

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