Wonder Woman: The Weird, True Story


Sarah Kerr in NYRB:

Wonder Woman stories showed women shackled in endless yards of ropes and chains—a constant theme in art from decades earlier demanding the right to vote. The traditional allegory of an island of Amazon princesses appears in feminist science fiction early in the twentieth century; the rhetoric of a nurturing, morally evolved strongwoman opposed to the war god Mars goes back even further. At the same time, the early comics often included a special insert, edited by a young female tennis champion and highlighting women heroes. Those chosen ranged from white suffragettes to Sojourner Truth to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, professional and sports pioneers, and a founder of the NAACP. It’s unlikely that any platform for American girls’ role models was as popular as this one until three decades later.

Wonder Woman was, in short, an explicitly feminist creation. Yet younger generations of feminists have lacked an awareness of the degree to which this is so, just as 1970s feminists were baffled when asked to identify pictures of the early suffragettes. So Wonder Woman is also the symbol of a culture-wide amnesia, part of the more general problem that American feminists can’t be inspired or taught the most useful lessons by their past until they gain a more cohesive sense of it.

On a literal level, too, Lepore has telling details to add to the feminist backstory of Wonder Woman. Officially, the comic (not a comic strip in a newspaper but a book following the serial adventures of a hero or in this case a heroine) was launched in 1941 by a man named William Moulton Marston. Marston, working under the name Charles Moulton, was without doubt the creator, but in practice he was assisted by his wife, Sadie Elizabeth Holloway Marston (sometimes called Sadie, sometimes Betty), and by a younger woman, Olive Byrne, who had lived with the married couple for years. After Marston died, in 1947, Sadie and Olive would live together for several more decades. The trio’s domestic arrangement has often been called “polyamorous,” a shorthand label that doesn’t quite capture its alternating vibes of sexual fluidity, personal and professional fusion, and the convenience of its work–life balance.

In any case, Olive became the main rearer of both women’s children by Marston. And Olive was none other than the niece of Margaret Sanger.

More here.