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As [personal profile] oursin likes to remind her readers, "secret history" is an overused marketing term for "actually quite well established history that people buying the book were maybe not acquainted with," but in this case it's definitely appropriate, as the history of Wonder Woman is inextricably tied to the polyamorous union of four adults who created her, and who did everything they could to keep their relationship an utter secret not just from the world but from their own children.

Various histories of Wonder Woman written by comics fans in this century have included details about William Marston's unconventional family and his fetishism for bondage, but all of them are frustratingly superficial and give little or no credit to his partners as co-creators, or to the political and social movements that influenced their creation of Wonder Woman.

Jill Lepore's book reveals that Wonder Woman, like all the writings attributed to William Marston, was a collaborative effort between Marston and his three partners, all feminists and suffragists like himself. Clues from college yearbooks and the like suggest that Elizabeth Holloway, Olive Byrne, and Marjorie Huntley were all bisexual and that the Marston family was not just polygamous but fully polyamorous.

Huntley had had a hysterectomy and, without children to anchor her, became the on again, off again member of the partnership. Holloway became the official Mrs. Marston, and Byrne became Holloway's nanny and housekeeper, which fiercely disappointed her mother, Ethel Byrne, and her aunt, Margaret Sanger. Forced, like most women of the time, to choose either political activism or motherhood, Ethel did not raise Olive, leaving her to be indifferently raised by her grandparents, then later by aunts and uncles.

((Aside: Ethel Byrne is not remembered as well as her less radical sister, but they were both birth control activists. Byrne was found guilty of distributing birth control information and sentenced to 30 days in jail. She went on a hunger strike, refusing both food and water. Sanger saved her sister from dying only by promising the governor that she would not continue her political activism upon release. Byrne adhered to the terms of the pardon, but never forgave her sister for truncating her activist career without consent. While Sanger severed her ties to socialism in order to get more mainstream acceptance for her birth control message, Byrne never did.))

If Margaret Sanger and the suffrage and birth control movements were Wonder Woman's godparents, socialism and free love were her eccentric aunts. 19th and early 20th century utopian socialists saw that they had to reject the "woman as property of her husband" paradigm, but lacked modern conceptual tools (of consent and women's autonomy and full equality, etc) to envision a viable alternative. The arrangement the Marstons settled on dispensed with ideology and instead catered to their various sexual fetishes. Marston thought of himself as Holloway's slave, while Huntley was rather fond of bondage. Byrne was willing to settle for anything that got her the family she had never known but deeply craved.

The earliest and least censored expression of their system can be found in the surviving notes of an Aquarian sex club that Marston, Holloway, Huntley and Byrne belonged to in the mid-20's. The club read Margaret Sanger's books and adopted her marital advice (that men needed to delay their own orgasms and pay attention to the clitoris in order to ensure their partner's pleasure). It also made use of the contraception that Olive Byrne was able to get from her aunt for them. Under a thick layer of Aquarian woo, it was basically a cult of female sexual power, one with goals rather like a training camp. "Love leaders" or "mistresses" were in charge, while "love girls" were the trainees. Together with a man, the three formed an astrologically perfect "love unit". This does not seem to have been femdom (the trainees, rather than the men, went naked and got put in bondage) but something rather more muddled, in which women


“expose their bodies and use various legitimate methods of the Love sphere to create in males submission to them, the women mistresses or Love leaders, in order that they, the Mistresses, may submit in passion to the males.”


Stripped of the sex but not of the bondage or the muddled idea that women must learn to submit in order to become properly dominant leaders of their men and of the world, this was the exact arrangement Wonder Woman grew up with on Paradise Island and espoused to the world in the 40's.

The Marstons poured their personal experiences, their politics, their mystical belief systems, and even their sex lives into Wonder Woman, and Jill Lepore does a superb job of fusing a biography of Marston and his partners with a history of the feminist movement of the era, using Wonder Woman to illuminate both, even as her history of both illuminates much about the 40's incarnation of Wonder Woman.

Just one example: Wonder Woman stories featured tons of bondage and enslaved women. The iconography may have pleased Marston and Huntley's fetishes, but it was also completely in line with long established tropes of feminist and suffragist art, which often depicted women as needing to free themselves from the slave chains of their husbands or of social conventions.

One last observation, not really called out by Lepore but which jumped out at me: Some people seem to go through life being their own PR firm, spending far more time promoting themselves and puffing up their deeds than they spend actually doing things worthy of note. Marston was absolutely one of those people. He tirelessly promoted himself as inventor of the lie detector, even though it was never actually able to work as advertised outside of lab experiments conducted by Marston. His life was a succession of failed endeavours and dismissals from a series of academic posts (his highly eccentric views and his interest in conducting kinky psychology experiments on young women did nothing to endear him to the universities where he taught). Finally, he lucked out and landed a job in comics, and the rest is, well, herstory.

Overall, an excellent history not only of Wonder Woman, but also a look at one slice of the history of feminism in the years between the passage of suffrage and women's liberation, showing how there was never actually an end to activism and the push for greater equality. Recommended.

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August 2017

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