*NEW* The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore

Reviewed by Victoria

wonderwomanI don’t know about you, but my memories of Wonder Woman involve the American television series from the 1970s that starred Linda Carter. We used to watch it on Saturday at teatime, and my dad would comment from his armchair that it was called Wonder Woman because you wondered all the time what was going on. It was her outfit that stayed in the mind, after all, that eagle-themed bustier with tiny bright blue shorts beneath and golden headband above. Who would guess, to look at her, that Wonder Woman was the greatest feminist to emerge from the 1940s?

Jill Lepore’s enthralling account of her genesis spends most of its time on the extraordinary figure of her creator, William Marsdon. Marsdon spent ten years at Harvard, picking up three degrees and inventing the lie detector test. He was a man with a burning ambition to be famous and celebrated, which he combined with an entrepreneurial nature and the morals of a stoat. Naturally hardwired to gain credence for his lie detector test via lively publicity, Marston did everything he could think of to promote the device. He became involved in a legal test case, proclaiming to have ‘proved’ the innocence of a black man facing a life sentence (he did not win his case to testify to the lie detector’s results as an expert witness). He hooked women up to the device at film screenings to see how they reacted to films (blondes were more excitable than brunettes). He tried to gain permission to test the innocence of the Lindbergh baby kidnapper, Bruno Hauptman – and failed, but wrote a book about his lie detector on the coattails of that particular story. And he approached Edgar Hoover at the start of World War II, offering himself and his lie detector services anyway. Hoover had him investigated and unearthed a chain of over-optimistic claims for his device. The man was a ‘phony’ Hoover decided, though the lie detector became a major piece of kit in the American war, just in the hands of a different inventor.

Marsdon didn’t seem able to help himself. He was a born huckster, a con man with some fancy degrees, and the truth simply wasn’t vivid enough. Enthusiasm and self-belief hardened into facts in his own mind. But not, alas, in the minds of those who spent any time with him. At first he had a string of university appointments, but each marked his descent down the teaching scale and eventually he was blackballed. Always a quick writer, Marsdon brought in a bit of money from articles he wrote, but mostly he sat about the house in his vest and pants.

Fortunately, he had women to look after him. Marsdon had married a woman deeply committed to the Suffragette cause, Elizabeth ‘Sadie’ Holloway. But being Marsdon, that wasn’t quite enough for him. The two became involved in a free love cult, and then he fell in love with his research assistant, Olive Byrne. Telling Sadie that their marriage was over unless she agreed, he brought Olive to live with them, and had two children by each woman. Sadie was an editor at Encyclopedia Brittanica and worked throughout her life to keep the household afloat; Olive brought up the children and was described, when asked by anyone outside the ménage, as the widowed housekeeper, and Marsdon’s sister-in-law. Marsdon’s mother, to whom he was very close, knew all about it, but she was the only one. Olive’s children were told their father was dead, which naturally caused some troubles later in life when the truth came out.

Marsdon thoroughly and, seemingly genuinely, espoused feminist ideals which he was as happy to proclaim as he was to promote the lie detector. In the early 40s he was brought onto the editorial advisory board of All-American Publications who produced DC comic books. The newspapers were waging a war against the ‘excessive violence’ they depicted, and in order to reassure parents, editor Charlie Gaines wanted some expert testimony as to their harmless nature, which Marsdon was happy to supply. But it wasn’t long before Marsdon saw a way to bring his ideological ideals to the table and kill multiple birds with one cartoon. What the comics needed, he argued, was a Super Woman Hero:

‘A male hero,’ he wrote by way of explanation, ‘at best, lacks the qualities of maternal love and tenderness which are as essential to a normal child as the breath of life. Suppose your child’s ideal becomes a superman who uses his extraordinary power to help the weak. The most important ingredien in the human happiness recipe still is missing – love. […] not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength and power… The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.’

Wonder Woman became a huge, instant hit. Marsdon drew on old political battles the Suffragettes had fought for his storylines, as well as much that had happened to him in his strange life. Unfortunately, his conviction that women got thrills from being bound up spawned more images of Wonder Woman in bondage than anyone other than Marsdon was comfortable with. But it wasn’t this that finished off Wonder Woman in the early 1950s. The end of the Second World War, with its emphasis on returning women to the domesticity they had finally had the chance to leave behind had its part to play, as did the early death of Marsdon himself. Wonder Woman languished until the feminists of the 70s dug her up again.

What I particularly loved about this book was the way it showed how there are no human superheroes, only flawed but determined human beings. Marsdon is the obvious case in point – a great power for the advancement of feminist thought, a rather seedy and sordid man who lived off women whilst retaining his position as head of the household. But he isn’t alone. I almost preferred the story of Margaret Sanger, the birth control pioneer, who was Olive Byrne’s aunt. Margaret Sanger and her sister, Ethel, were determined to rescue women from the severe medical risk and poverty involved in endless pregnancies (against ferocious opposition: one judge declared that unless a woman was prepared to die in childbirth, she shouldn’t have sex). Struggling to gain purchase for the movement, Sanger aligned herself at one point with the eugenicists who wanted to control the ‘mental defectives’ within a community and were such a hit with the Nazis. And when her sister Ethel was on hunger strike in jail, Sanger collected her sister’s child, Olive, from the orphanage where she had been summarily dumped when Ethel tired of motherhood, and used her as a bargaining chip with the judge. Sanger swore she would be accountable for Ethel’s flawless behaviour in the future, as Ethel was too ill to swear herself. It turned out that Sanger wanted full control of the movement, and in later years asked Ethel to say that it was she, Margaret, who had undertaken the hunger strike.

The only superheroes are those in pen and ink on the pages of a comic; real life heroes inevitably have feet of clay. This is a clever and engrossing book, rich in twentieth century history and populated with extraordinary, complex and complicated people. I loved it.


Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Jill Lepore, The Secret History of Wonder Woman (Scribe, 2015). 978-0804173407. 464 pp, paperback.

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