Book Review: The Secret History of Wonder Woman, by Jill Lepore

The Secret History of Wonder Woman, by Jill Lepore. Alfred A. Knopf Publisher. 2014. Hardcover. $24.

I’m not sure many people realize Wonder Woman is nearly as old as Batman and Superman. My impression is she has gotten lost in time, lost in small screen and silver screen cinema, and most importantly, has essentially been shelved by a male-dominated media culture who has historically refused to recognize the contribution of Wonder Woman to popular culture and who deny a woman can be a lead in an action movie.

Historians are charged with a critical responsibility. Historians are the referees of society. When a group or agency or person make some claim historians have the responsibility to step in and determine the veracity of stated claims. Said another way, historians should keep or maintain accuracy of events. Jill Lepore’s entry into the literature of comic book history and the influence of comic books on U.S. culture offers considerable commentary on the dominance of white males in higher education, in marketing, in publishing, and in controlling who speaks and what is spoken early in the 20th century, in a country priding itself upon “freedom of speech.”

The other dominate force in addition to white male dominance is that of religion. Together, the role of males augmented by the vociferous rhetoric of organized religion very much controlled the rights of women. Finding the proper tense for my commentary here is challenging as many of the obstacles faced by women in the early 20th century continue to thrive well into the 21st century. The United States continues to exhibit the implementation of policies to control women’s presence in certain economic government sectors, while politicians continue to try to exercise legislative pressure to control birth control, sex education, and access to family planning.

Sensation Comics (1942)

Sensation Comics (1942)

Wonder Woman is a contemporary of Batman and Superman. Published in “Sensation Comics” in 1942, perhaps I should say Diana Prince is a contemporary of Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent/Kal-el. Much has been made about Batman over the last two decades or so, and almost as much has been made over Superman over an even longer time frame. I am only using the most recent incarnations of “Batman,” circa Michael Keaton, in making that statement, and only post-Christopher Reeves “Superman.” I’m not in denial of previous manifestations of those characters, I’m simply framing them in relationship to current pop culture. I realize Batman and Superman go back to the late 1930’s.

Jill Lepore offers a very interesting examination of the many facets behind the origins of Wonder Woman. WW wasn’t simply the creation of William Marsten to develop a strong female character in the vein of Superman, or an intelligent heroine borrowed from Batman. No, the design behind WW was not initially deliberate. Later, as her character became immensely popular themes and art would certainly become exquisitely deliberate.

Wonder Woman was created by the fellow who designed and patented the world’s first “lie detector” device. And where did his inspiration arise? From his sister-in-law, Margaret Sanger, the principle person advocating women’s rights in the United States, and chiefly responsible for founding Planned Parenthood.

William Moulton Marsten was a very intrepid young man with an active mind and considerable motivation. In 1911 he moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts and began taking courses at Harvard University. He was fascinated by philosophy, psychology and sociology and not so enthusiastic about English and history.

Cambridge was rapidly becoming the “proving ground” for women’s suffrage and Marston was right in the thick of the controversy. Cambridge was the site of many of the early protests, campaigns, and rhetoric of the early women’s rights movement. The movement, which began in Great Britain, expanded across the pond to the U.S. East Coast. Harvard University supported women’s rights, creating the Harvard Men’s League for Women Suffrage. Harvard invited a popular speaker on women’s rights, Florence Kelley, to speak on fair wages, an 8-hr work day, and the end of child labor. One problem. In 1911, women were not allowed to speak on the campus of Harvard, or nearly every other university, not as a guest speaker. The Harvard University Corporation – something similar to a Board of Regents, I imagine – upon receiving a petition in support of Kelley from the league, stated Kelley could speak on campus but only if the speech was closed to anyone not affiliated with Harvard. (p10)

Let me break that paragraph down a little further, then add more details. In 1911, women could not vote. Women could not attend Harvard; they had their own colleges separate from men. And, let’s not forget Blacks were also segregated at this point, as well. Thus, we are really dealing with a White oligarchy and aristocracy in control not only of industry but most of education, and thus the greater part of American culture, I would argue. Kelley is invited to Harvard to advocating against work days longer than 8-hours, a minimum wage for women, and the end to child labor. As evidenced by Harvard’s reaction, we can see regardless of how progressive society believes itself to be a vast chasm exists between where society is and where it needs to be.

True, these events took place 104 years ago. But consider events and circumstances of today. We are still debating maternity leave. Legislation has been submitted to control a woman’s reproductive rights. We have legislators who posit notions like “legitimate rape,” and make such nonsense claims a woman’s body “has a way to shut the whole thing down.” In late 2014, the GamerGate controversy became headline news as males took aim at women journalists covering the video game industry. Video games and video game creators came under the scrutiny of female journalists for their unequivocally sexist themes and overt over-sexualization of women. Some of these female journalists have then be subject to death threats and harassment, with the controversy spilling over into all social media venues.

Wonder Woman, of the New 52. (2012)

Wonder Woman, of the New 52. (2012)

Few other comic book heroes are as controversial as Wonder Woman. From her warrior bands of gold worn around her wrists which some people take to imply sexual binding, to binding villains in her golden lasso, again interpreted as sexual binding and submission, the character of Wonder Woman has proven to be a lightning rod for societal issues.

If my commentary comes across as supporting feminism, you’re right. Look, society has made advances since the 1920s. However, all one must do is look at limitations in the military placed upon women, or look at limitations incorporated into school systems limiting the discussion of sex education, or look at the fights occurring in some school districts and in churches limiting the discussion of birth control, and look at the legislation of women’s clinics, and we are surrounded by evidence the grasp of conservative and religious is nearly as tight as existed in the 1920s. Furthermore, social media continues to provide platforms for people to threaten and harass women who point out misogynist themes in society.

A mature society must review itself on occasion. A mature society must step back and assess where it has been, where it is, and where it needs to go in order to progress. A mature society cannot deny rights or privileges to any proportion of its population based simply in gender or race. Yet, an honest and current assessment of our U.S society can only result in the conclusion we have a long ways to go to consider ourselves “mature.” My belief is Lepore’s book offers “Exhibit A” in an extensive litany of evidence to support the contention of many the United States needs more self-reflection and more social progress to eliminate cultural bias, racism, and sexism.

Jill Lepore’s “The Secret History of Wonder Woman” is thoroughly researched. She interviewed surviving family members, former WW artists, former writers, current and former publishers of Wonder Woman. She dug deep into newspapers and university archives to support her commentary of Wonder Woman. The book is deceptively thick; 25% of Jill’s book is essentially her research notes.

Anyone who has an interest in comic book history, the history of beloved characters, needs to read this fascinating book. But, Jill Lepore’s work also provides considerable insight into the history of feminism, and the history of Planned Parenthood. All of these topics are woven together due to William Moulton Marsten being at the epicenter of the women’s rights movements. Jill’s book would make for a good addition to a college course reading list, in history, feminist or women’s literature, perhaps in graphics arts and design, or for a political science or public policy/public administration course.

Read this book. PAX

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