(Re)viewing Wonder Woman

By Peg Stobel

The author poses with a Wonder Woman action figure.

I never read a Wonder Woman comic nor saw the 1970s TV show, but as a feminist and a historian I was intrigued by the very idea of Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman –even before it won the New York Historical Society’s American History Book Prize. Those not prepared to read all 297 pages of the book can read the New Yorker excerpt or find the main points in the 16-page color insert that features panels from initial 1941 sketches to Wonder Woman’s appearance on the cover of the first regular issue of Ms. magazine in July 1972. (Casual readers can ignore the 109 pages of sources, notes, indices.) Like Superman (1938) and Batman (1939), Wonder Woman (1941), never out of print, helped launch the Golden Age of comic books.

Many book reviews have highlighted the unconventional living arrangement of Wonder Woman’s creator William Moulton Marston, his wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston, and his mistress Olive Byrne. The three lived together with their four children through his adult life; Elizabeth and Olive continued to live together until Olive’s death in 1990.

But the story Lepore crafts is about so much more. If this blog post were appearing on Sesame Street, it would be brought to us by the letter S (for Sanger, suffrage, sex, and sexism) and the number 2 (two take-aways).

Sanger: Birth control advocate Margaret Sanger was Olive Byrne’s aunt. Olive’s mother, Ethel Byrne, nearly died from a hunger strike while imprisoned for distributing contraception information. Sanger’s Woman and the New Race (1920) inspired Byrne, Holloway, and Marston. (More on Sanger later.)

Suffrage: Marston, Holloway, and Byrne all supported and were inspired by the women’s suffrage struggle leading up to the 1920 constitutional amendment granting women the vote. Moreover, Wonder Woman’s origin story of Paradise Island, a feminist Amazonia, utilized tropes common in suffrage literature of the early decades of the twentieth century. Drawing on suffrage iconography, Wonder Woman appears in chains in nearly all her comics; breaking those chains symbolized her emancipation – and that of women as a whole. Suffrage cartoonist Lou Rogers significantly influenced Harry G. Peter, himself a suffragist and feminist, who became the primary Wonder Woman artist.

Sex: Beyond their polygynous household, Byrne, Holloway, and Marston were members in 1925 of a “kinky New Age” group, the Aquarians, whom Lepore describes as a “cult of female sexual power” (119). And, all the bondage in Wonder Woman comics drew attacks from groups such as the National Organization for Decent Literature.

Sexism: Like Rosie the Riveters, Wonder Woman was demobilized after World War II. With Marston dead, the publisher appointed as editor a decidedly sexist Robert Kanigher rather than Holloway. In Marston’s origin story, Princess Diana rescues Steve Trevor, a soldier whose plane has crashed on the all-female Paradise Island. She rescues him and returns with him to his job at army intelligence headquarters, becoming (in her non-superhero mode) Diana Prince, secretary. Having spurned proposals from Trevor for years, the 1950s Diana Prince now wants to marry. Lepore summarizes, she “became a babysitter, a fashion model, and a movie star” (271).

I take away two lessons from Wonder Woman’s secret history. First, radical history will be suppressed. Marston included in his 1940s Wonder Woman comics a “Wonder Women in History” centerfold. Kanigher replaced this with “Marriage a la Mode” in the 1950s. But ideology isn’t the only cause of suppression. Sanger actively wrote her more radical sister Ethel Byrne out of the history of birth control in order to keep the focus on herself. And Holloway and Byrne chose not to draw attention to their unusual family life when responding to interviewers interested in Wonder Woman or Sanger.

Second, allies are important, in this case, male allies in support of feminism. Although a kooky huckster, Marston brought a feminist ideology into U.S. popular culture. Moved by radical suffragists in the 1910s, he joined the Harvard Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage. His Wonder Woman, compared to its 1950s incarnation, is strong, brave, athletic, and reluctant to marry. Boys as well as girls liked Wonder Woman, voting Wonder Woman (over other, male superheroes) to join the Justice Society, a league of superheroes.

The power of this image attracted the women who founded Ms. and who sought to “bridge the distance between the feminism of the 1910s and the feminism of the 1970s with the Wonder Woman of the 1940s, the feminism of their childhood” (285).

Feminism, though the predominant theme, is not the only story in this history. Before creating Wonder Woman in the 1940s, Marston tried unsuccessfully to support his family by teaching, acting as a consulting psychologist, and pitching his lie detector machine, which features prominently in Wonder Woman comics.

We are fortunate that this story remained uncovered until someone of Lepore’s talents put it together. But, as she notes, “the people interested in the history of comic books are not the same as the people interested in the history of the polygraph. (And very few people in either group are also interested in the history of feminism.)” (295-96).

Call me old-fashioned and way too much a historian, but I’m not looking forward to the movie version.


Peg Strobel is a member of Chicago DSA and is also a member of DSA’s National Political Committee.

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