The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore, book review

For the Harvard professor Jill Lepore, the comic-book heroine – and the ménage à trois behind her creation – are the missing links in understanding the struggle for women's rights
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To a child growing up in the Seventies, Wonder Woman meant American beauty queen-turned-actress Lynda Carter in red bustier and high-heeled boots. I was yet to become any form of activist but incipient political intelligence told me the star of the television show was no Germaine Greer.

Yet, for the Harvard professor Jill Lepore, Wonder Woman, as originally conceived in comic-strip format by William Moulton Marston, is "the missing link in understanding the struggle for women's rights". And she offers an entertaining case for the proposition.

Born in Massachusetts in 1893, Marston spent much of his life as one of the self-proclaimed greatest psychologists of America and the inventor of the lie-detector test. It was a rival who patented the polygraph, however, and the evidence adduced by Lepore suggests that Marston was a less brilliant psychologist than a self-deluding charlatan and failure in almost everything he turned his hand to – academia, business, Hollywood screenwriting, advertising and law.

His one genuine legacy was the creation, in 1941, of a fictional feminist super-being to rival Batman and Superman in the pantheon of comic-book greats. He hoped her radical philosophy would inspire a generation of strong, assertive women, even if her costume (or lack of it) and propensity to bondage provoked criticism from the start. What Lepore seeks to do here is tell the story of women's experience in the 20th century through this pop-culture icon. Marston provides the key because his life collided with key figures in the campaign for female suffrage; his own autobiography, in fact, acts as a fascinating counterpoint to the history of feminism in the United States.

He was a Harvard University undergraduate when the British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst was banned from speaking there in 1911. He and Sadie Elizabeth Holloway, the talented British-born woman he married, read Woman and the New Race, an influential book by Margaret Sanger, who was a birth-control pioneer and major figure in American women's rights. Sanger's niece, Olive Byrne, handily became Marston's student, then clinical assistant, then lover, joining the Marston household in a ménage à trois recognised by all parties as so unconventional it remained a closely guarded secret until all were dead. This threesome is uncomfortable for the reader.

Marston's espousal of the right of women to work, combined with his own inability to hold down a job, meant that he lived off the efforts of his clever, hard-working wife while depending on his mistress to bring up the four children that were the product of the arrangement. It might have worked for him but looks questionable for the women – even if they continued to share their lives after he died of polio.

Yet Lepore vividly evokes the radical free love and socialism of the early years of women's lib in America. She demonstrates the way in which contemporary debate informed storylines in Marston's strips during the 1940s and how characters such as Dr Psycho and Etta Candy had real-life counterparts. And she is right – if a little laboured – in highlighting the irony of a man so obsessed with lie detection keeping to his grave the secrets of a personal life with such contradictory strands.

She explores the big political picture, beyond the acknowledged dates of first and second wave feminism: "The suffrage campaign from 1848 to 1920 is often thought of as the 'first wave' of the women's movement, and women's liberation, in the 1960s and 1970s, as 'the second wave'. In between, the thinking goes, the waters were still. But there was plenty of agitation in the 1940s in the pages of Wonder Woman."

"For all her controversy and ambiguity," she adds, "Wonder Woman is best understood as the missing link in the history of the struggle for women's equality." That mighty claim seems unproven. Wonder Woman may have won 500,000 readers by its third issue, but Lepore presents little evidence that Marston's stories acted as a populist recruitment campaign for feminism and, if anything, the correspondence indicates that Wonder Woman's physical (as well as metaphorical) battles to break the chains of bondage simply encouraged some male readers into rather suspect fantasies.

Joining the hitherto unconnected dots between a string of extraordinary characters makes riveting reading but does not automatically rewrite the history. "Secrecy led to a distortion not only of Wonder Woman but also of the course of women's history and the struggle for equal rights," Lepore writes. Really? When the new feminists of 1972 reclaim Wonder Woman as the cover girl for the first issue of Ms magazine, Gloria Steinem proclaims: "Looking back at these Wonder Woman stories of 1940s, I am amazed by the strength of their feminist message."

But the stories had been there all along and if their importance in the history of American liberal feminism was overlooked, I'm not convinced that was because Marston, Holloway and Byrne hid the details of their personal entanglement. As a plot device, the missing-link theory is overblown and does not succeed in making Wonder Woman a popular Pankhurst, however tempting it is to find a mass-market conduit for such an important story of social change.

But what a cracking narrative it is. My fear for Lepore is that public affection for Wonder Woman is not what it was and the titular emphasis on the super-heroine with the silly wardrobe might deter exactly the kind of readers who would really enjoy this book. Marston proves to be the least laudable of her characters, but Elizabeth Holloway, Olive Byrne and, above all, Margaret Sanger, emerge as true, if flawed, Wonder Women. And if Lepore introduces some comic book fans to a history of suffrage (and lie detection), then perhaps Wonder Woman will have achieved something of what her creator intended. How strange.

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