TRADE | The Secret History of Wonder Woman, by Jill Lepore
This post was originally part of #IBCdoesGalentines! Inspired by our main squeeze Leslie Knope, the creator of Galentine’s Day, we’ll be celebrating the best in being a lady with the best in bodice ripping, budding romance, and a healthy dose of feminism.
I think as a consequence of way to many years in school, I have a tendency to fall asleep reading non-fiction.
I inherited this quality from my mother, who used the skills of sleeping five minutes into reading on Shakespeare. I honed that skill on historical non-fiction through undergrad. As an adult, who’s relatively interested in learning things, this can be a bit of a problem.
So you have to understand, it took me much longer than anticipated to work my way through The Secret History of Wonder Woman, with no fault to Jill Lepore and her well crafted history behind one of the most iconic superheroes in Americana.
I would highly recommend The Secret History of Wonder Woman to anyone who is remotely interested in the history of the women’s movement, feminism, social justice, or the origins of comics. Or the lie detector test. Because, as Lepore states in her epilogue:
For a long time, no one paid much attention to the fact that the creator of Wonder Woman was also the inventor of the lie detector test. This is partly because Marston had published his comics under a pseudonym, “Charles Moulton,” but mainly it’s because the people interested in the history of comic books are not the same people interested in the history of the polygraph. (And very few people in either group are also interested in the history of feminism.)
And yet, as Lepore makes evident, the history of Wonder Woman contains multitudes. The character of William Moulton Marston is one of those bizarre so-impossible-it-must-be true characters of history. Not to give too many spoilers, but suffice it to say that Marston had a little harem of ladies going, and some serious tendencies toward bondage that manifested in pretty much ever Wonder Woman script.
As a self-identified feminist of the 21st century, the women’s movement of the nineteenth century is almost an alien creature. The First Wave of the suffragettes were primarily concerned with the emancipation of women and securing the right to vote – but their motivations focused primarily on the idea that women could be the saviors of the world:
The word “feminism,” hardly ever used before 1910, was everywhere by 1913. It meant advocacy of women’s rights and freedoms and a vision of equality markedly different from that embraced by the “women’s movement” of the nineteenth century, which, nostalgic for a prehistoric, matriarchal “mother-age,” had been founded less on a principle of equality than on a set of ideas about women’s moral superiority. “All feminists are suffragists, but not all suffragists are feminist,” as one feminist explained. Feminists rejected the idea of women as reformers whose moral authority came from their different-ness from men – women were supposedly, by nature, more tender and loving and chaste and purse – and advocated instead women’s full and equal participation in politics, work, and the arts, on the grounds that women were in every way equal to men.
The feminism that emerged in the 1910s is surprisingly similar to the feminism promoted today – a vision of men and women as equal, and an understanding that in order to achieve that equality, women’s participation in politics, work, and the arts is essential. As Lepore explores through the story of Wonder Woman, the evolution of feminism and “women’s lib” is an ebbing tide – although women gained significantly from the 1910s through the 1940s, the 1950s saw a strong push back to ‘traditional’ gender roles, pushing women out of the workforce and into the home. The rising women’s liberation movement in the 1960s and 70s (the Second Wave) promoted similar goals to these earlier movements, but with almost no knowledge of the great strides achieved only decades previous.
Lepore draws strong parallels, as Wonder Women begins in the 1940s as a strong feminism icon, only to be crushed by the values of the 1950s, shuttered into the roles of beauty queen, dating advice columnist, and losing all of her powers.
It’s not surprising that the women’s lib movement attempted to resurrect the Wonder Woman of their youth – the powerful Amazonian hero.
Aside from the problematic Marston himself, this history of Wonder Woman provides a unique vantage point to view this history of feminism, women’s liberation, and the modern feminist movement.
I WOULD ENCOURAGE EVERYONE TO TAKE THE PLUNGE, FOR A DOSE OF HISTORY ALONGSIDE A TRULY FASCINATING