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Monday, November 17, 2014

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

I have always loved Wonder Woman. When I was five, I dressed as Wonder Woman for Halloween. My friend Rachel (who was a year older than me and a foot taller than me) introduced me to her friend Alanna (a foot taller than Rachel!) after school that day. She repeatedly kept trying to get me to say my name to Alanna, but instead I insisted over and over that I was not Carin, "I'm Wonder Woman!" I haven't seen Rachel in a few years, but I'm certain if I ran into her again, that story would come up.

I don't know if I ever read a Wonder Woman comic, though. Watched the TV show with Linda Carter, sure! Desperately wanted the lunchbox and the underoos. Never got them but that Wonder Woman costume was the only actual store-bought costume I ever knew my parents to buy any of us, and it was in the dress-up box for years (it was cloth, not plastic or paper.)

I picked a good role-model, although her backstory is decidedly odd. She was created by Dr. William Marsden, who also was the inventor of the lie-detector test back in 1915 (his model was not the one that caught on and is used today.) That sounds very strange until you think about one of Wonder Woman's gadgets--that lasso that made anyone tell the truth. Now, it makes more sense. Dr. Marsden created Wonder Woman to be a feminist, with homage to the suffragettes and other female pioneers, particularly Margaret Sanger (the founder of Planned Parenthood.) See, Marsden had not only a wife, but also a live-in mistress (and a third woman who lived with them sometimes.) The live-in mistress was the niece of Sanger, so their family knew her well. No one seemed to know exactly how their family worked (her children didn't know for decades that Marsden was their real father, instead of their mother's fictional deceased husband.) But it did (in fact the two women continued to live together for many decades after Marsden's death.)

Marsden had some decidedly kooky ideas, including that women were really in power as it was more powerful to submit to another person, which is why being tied up or chained featured so prominently in the storylines. In fact, it was so very everpresent that after a while it starts to have undertones of S&M. Marsden would always reject that idea, but it's hard to come to another conclusion when you see so many of the strips with that same premise repeatedly. Nevertheless, Wonder Woman was presented as a seriously powerful and independent woman. Which made it all the more ridiculous when she was added to the Justice League, which was written by a different cartoonist who did not like Wonder Woman and not only relegated her to the role of secretary, but constantly sidelined her with excuses like, "I haven't typed up last week's minutes so I can't help you go save the world, but I'll be with you in spirit. Good luck boys!" Ugh. And also the later, 1950s-era Wonder Woman (after Marsden's death) who became a model and a romance-advice columnist, pining away to marry Steve.

But it is the backstory, or the secret history, which is the most fascinating. Marsden had a law degree and a Ph.D. from Harvard, but his career was on a swift downhill trajectory that veered off into Hollywood and murder cases and other odd tangents before he finally hit on Wonder Woman (luckily his wife worked as an editor, mostly at Encyclopedia Brittanica and major magazines, while the mistress stayed at home with all the kids, so her income kept them afloat.) He was interested in free love, many decades before that phrase became popular. He thought people should be able to do what they wished when it came to love, which was the most powerful force in the universe, and that's why women were going to soon rule the world: because they were more in touch with their feelings and they were kinder, more peaceful people than men. While he never said they were as smart as men, the women in his life were all highly educated with graduate degrees, so he obviously didn't think they were dumb.

What an odd but fun story! Well-written, extremely well-researched, this stranger-than-fiction history behind Wonder Woman is an excellent read.

I bought this book at Park Road Books, my local independent bookstore.

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