Wonder Woman is the most popular female comic-book superhero of all time. She’s also, along with Superman and Batman, one of the most enduring. Like all superheroes, she has an origin story: descended from a tribe of Greek Amazons, Princess Diana lives in the all-female utopia of Paradise Island until Steve Trevor, a U.S. army officer, crashes his plane there during the Second World War. Diana gives up eternal life to return him to America where he—and now she under the alias of Diana Prince, aka Wonder Woman —can continue fighting the Nazi threat.
Like most people who grew up in the seventies, I first knew Wonder Woman from the TV show starring pageant winner Lynda Carter. Though she could bend tire irons like licorice, deflect bullets with her bracelets and shoulder-flip gorillas, there was an undeniable prurience to the fact that some of the hazards Woman Woman faced were sartorial. Not only was she required to leap and sprint in go-go boots, she risked spilling out of her strapless bustier with each fling of her truth-eliciting lariat (the show’s theme song describes her as fighting for her rights in her “satin tights” even though she wasn’t actually wearing any.) Carter bore, needless to say, little outward resemblance to the women’s libbers discussing Kate Millet and Germaine Greer a few channels over.
It thus came as a surprise to learn, thanks to historian Jill Lepore’s enlightening and entertaining book The Secret History of Wonder Woman, that Wonder Woman, who made her comic book debut in 1941, was the self-conscious product of first-wave feminism. Indeed, Lepore is less interested in her as a character than as crucible of 20th century feminism, or “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.”
In the 1950s, Wonder Woman—like women generally—found her independence challenged. As well fighting crime she was suddenly assigned to jobs like babysitter, fashion model and advice columnist. When feminism’s fortunes revived again in the 60s, so did Wonder Woman’s. Nostalgic for the icon of their youth, Gloria Steinem and her Ms. Magazine cofounders put her on the magazine’s inaugural 1971 cover.
The Secret History of Wonder Woman is also by necessity a biography of Wonder Woman’s polymath creator, William Moulton Marston. Born in 1893 to a prestigious Boston family, Marston was won over to feminism after hearing suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst speak when he was a freshman at Harvard (Pankhurst was banned from the university’s campus). Before Wonder Woman—which he wrote under the pseudonym Charles Moulton—Marston had an idiosyncratic and largely unsuccessful career as academic, psychologist, Hollywood screenwriter and inventor of the lie detector test (one of many ironies about Marston was that he was an inveterate liar himself).
There are aspects of Marston’s feminism that are hard to reconcile. He had, for instance, such a predilection for depicting Wonder Woman in bondage (justified with elaborate psychobabble) that his editors at DC Comics eventually felt compelled to intervene.
For most of his adult life Marston was supported financially by his brilliant wife, Sadie Elizabeth Holloway. When he suggested hiring his former student, Olive Byrne (who happened to be the niece of birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger), as live-in nanny for their two children so Holloway could return to work, Holloway was initially unaware that Byrne had been more than Marston’s student. The three nevertheless arrived at an unorthodox but mutually satisfactory domestic arrangement; after Moulton died in 1947, Holloway and Byrne (who bore two of her own children by Marston) continued to live together happily for several more decades.
This wry, astutely observed book appears at a time when women’s issues are once again top of mind politically and culturally. Among other things, it reminds us that social progress can be elusive, even if you’re a superhero.
—Emily Donaldson is a freelance critic and editor