The secret history of Wonder Woman's conflicted feminism

March 13, 2015

The Secret History of Wonder Woman
By Jill Lepore
Knopf, 2014, 410 pages

Wonder Woman cannot marry, according to Amazon law. She doesn’t want to, either. Especially if it would mean that she — the comic book superhero disguised as a secretary — would be stuck in the kitchen cooking dinner for her would-be domesticator, Captain Steve Trevor, the US pilot she fell in love with after rescuing him from his plane crash on her woman-only, feminist island utopia.

As Harvard history professor Jill Lepore writes, Wonder Woman, who became the most popular superhero in the 1940s after Superman and Batman, had her origins in the struggle for women’s equality.

William Marston, a psychology professor, created Wonder Woman to, as he said, “combat the idea that women are inferior to men, and to inspire girls to self-confidence and achievement” in fields “monopolised by men”.

First stirred by the women’s suffrage movement, Marston, better known for inventing the lie detector test ,created a strong, politically-charged, feminist superhero for DC Comics.

Wherever women were given a raw deal by men, Wonder Woman would be there to right the injustice. She led women’s rallies and boycotts against milk-pricing rackets and intervened with her magic lasso in a strike by female department store clerks, doubling their wages. Despite her non-violent principles, Wonder Woman physically taught husbands who maltreated their wives a lesson by socking them on the jaw.

Marston was also influenced by the free love philosophy of the feminists who lived together with him under the one roof — his wife Elizabeth Holloway, his younger mistress (Olive Byrne) and sometimes a third lover (Marjorie Huntley). Holloway rejected domesticity to work as a book editor and Byrne, a child psychologist, raised all the household’s children.

Unlike the mythical Amazon society of Ancient Greece which was the backstory to Wonder Woman, the Marston household was no matriarchy. The women brought in the real money, did the childcare and typed his books. There were other contradictions in Marston’s feminist comic-book creation.

The long-legged, slender, pin-up-girl-quality Wonder Woman (and the former Miss America beauty pageant winner who starred in the 1960s TV series) reinforced the stereotype that, to achieve recognition or success, women had to conform to conventional male criteria of female beauty.

When Wonder Woman was used by Gloria Steinem to launch the corporate-funded, feminist magazine Ms in 1972, radical feminists derided the exercise for its failure to break from the importance placed on women’s physical appearance and its middle-class individualism in which only the few, well-resourced super-women can succeed.

Women as sexual objects also coloured the Wonder Woman comics. In every episode, Wonder Woman is either “chained, bound, gagged, lassoed, tied, fettered or manacled”. While it is true that this borrowed from earlier suffragist and Abolitionist iconography which featured chains as an allegorical representation of voteless women and slaves’ lack of liberty, there is, says Lepore, more to it than that — it is “feminism as fetish”.

Marston excused it as “harmless erotic fantasy” but bondage fetishists got another message about dominance and women.

Wonder Woman was also kitted out, in what little clothing she wore, in patriotic red, white and blue because Marston saw the US as the home of freedom and democracy and not just because there was a war on against fascism at the time. There was little American freedom for Wonder Woman, however, when the White House pressured the comics industry into self-censorship in the 1950s.

Their moral code now outlawed anything under-dressed, “deviant” (Wonder Woman’s latent lesbianism) or unconventional (any “love interest shall emphasise the value of the home and sanctity of marriage”, it declared). The supplement on biographies of famous women which had been part of Wonder Woman’s early comic book days under Marston was now replaced by a series on weddings. Wonder Woman continued on after Marston’s death in 1947 but she was no longer recognisable as a feminist fighter.

Although Lepore claims that Wonder Woman is the missing link between the “first wave” feminism of the early suffrage campaigns and the “second wave” feminism of 1960s women’s liberation, Wonder Woman was a phenomenon and not a movement, and too ideologically conflicted, to bear such a historical role.

Wonder Woman’s shortage of feminist clarity and political substance may explain why Lepore overpopulates her narrative history with auxiliary figures and events, but her book remains a valuable addition to feminist scholarship.

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