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Did Wonder Woman fail feminism?

Discussed in this essay:

The Secret History of Wonder Woman, by Jill Lepore. Knopf. 448 pages. $29.95

Holy Hera! What have women been doing the past century? Sleeping? How else could we have allowed chains to be soldered to our silver bracelets and maintained despite the effort of so many activists over such a long time? Feminism: one wave, a second wave, I’m not sure anymore how many waves (are we presently up to the fourth?). Even in the seeming feminist doldrums of the 1940s, there was a contained but noisy demand for birth control from the working women who kept the industries going while the men were at war. Surely that shift could only have ended in liberation and financial, social, and sexual equality for women — but it didn’t. What we did get from the 1940s was the advent of Wonder Woman, one man’s vision of, and later several men’s caricature of, female liberation.

Wonder Woman, by Anthony Lister

Wonder Woman, by Anthony Lister

Yet, Suffering Sappho! Here we still are, marching right into yet another century with our glass ceilings, unequal pay, unresolved work and child-care balance, and still marrying, forever marrying, men. For more than a hundred years, we’ve been more like Sleeping Beauties than Amazons. Perhaps we mistook those chains dangling from our bracelets — chains the cartoonists were always wrapping around us — for love’s binding. In the case of Wonder Woman and her creators, it’s quite hard to tell the difference. However or whatever, we Amazons seem willingly to have submitted to the pleasures of being held and controlled by handsome hunks like Captain Steve Trevor, who arrive among us and tame us because they know that is what we want and how we function best. And who can say otherwise when the finest of us, Princess Diana, a.k.a. Diana Prince, a.k.a. Wonder Woman, saved Steve from certain death and then left Paradise Island, where women ruled and lived in peace, with nothing but her lasso of truth and the magic girdle of power, in order to help Trevor and the United States fight, as we told ourselves, “the battle for freedom, democracy, and womankind”? We followed Steve into his world, where men wrote the story and drew the pictures and made us all too vincible.

Forgive the cartoon melodrama, but reading about the history and creation of Wonder Woman has that effect on me: astonishment at how little women seem to have achieved after so many brave battles. And frankly, it’s a comfort to tell the comic-book story rather than to face the rebellious, revolutionary, real-world hope that accompanied the creation of Wonder Woman, and to see how, again and then again, women struggled and failed to wrest the narrative from men. I suspect that you’d need to be around my age, to have lived at least through the wave of feminism in the 1970s, to feel in full the stunning sense of disappointment. It’s a strange way into the history of feminism, not at all what I had intended in reading this book for review, but everything about Wonder Woman — her creators, her story, her style, her attitudes, and her development — speaks in undertones to the century-long failure of feminism to gel. Not that things haven’t gotten better for women. They have: the laws, the social rules, the range of possibilities, all have improved at least somewhat. But look more carefully at women’s day-to-day lives — aping male behavior and affect while still being paid unequally, watching the top jobs go to men while suffering the shortfall of energy and effectiveness brought on by combining child care and work — and we can see that we are cartoon versions of liberated women. We’re analogies of Wonder Woman rather than the other way round, drawn in broad strokes that mesh perfectly with male fantasies of dominance and submission.

The writer who brought Wonder Woman into being in 1941 was, you won’t be surprised to hear, a man. A man who, because of the happenstance of his time, the remarkable women who surrounded him, and the way he integrated his fetishistic inner fantasy world with his everyday domestic and working life, is enough of a curiosity to be well worth a book. Irresistible, actually. William Moulton Marston is an excellent subject for a biographer: a man who was somewhat plausible yet always underachieving, grandiose but consistently dependent on women for his ideas as well as for his domestic and sexual gratification. Really, a bit of an ass. The sort about whom one wonders, “What is she doing with him?” Jill Lepore tells a hilarious and not unmoving story about Marston, who leads her to a unique group of women, each of whom deserves a biography of her own, but who are most vivid when united in their strange connection to oafish Marston.

Marston sort of invented the lie detector, before ambling vaguely into the movie world and then into cartoon publishing, claiming lasting fame finally as the creator and writer of his fantasy of (conditional) female strength, Wonder Woman. At Harvard, as a student of Hugo Münsterberg, who was brought by William James to the university as an experimental psychologist, Marston helped conduct experiments to discover whether it was possible to scientifically distinguish truth-telling from lying. He helped Münsterberg measure “the heat of the skin, the rate of the heartbeat, the speed of speech” as “indicators of deceit.” Marston immediately saw the legal application of a deception process that might tell the guilty from the innocent and perhaps actually obviate the hit-and-miss procedures of law.

In the meantime, planning to go on from psychology to study at Harvard Law School, Marston was enchanted by motion pictures, and, needing funds, wrote and sold photoplays to the plot-hungry movie industry. Early in 1915 he entered a photoplay competition held by the Edison Company and won it with Jack Kennard, Coward, which was cast, shot, and released by May of the same year. Unfortunately for Marston, this was just a couple of days before the sinking of the Lusitania, which rather cast a pall over moviegoing for the week. But he bent with the ill winds and kept his options flexible. After graduating from law school he pitched his deception process as just the thing for use in the war to test recruits and to interrogate prisoners and spies. When he was offered a research post under Robert Yerkes, president of the American Psychological Association, Marston’s former adviser Herbert Langfeld gave him a reference. Langfield wrote to Yerkes, telling him to take the young man, but offered a penetrating view of Marston that would apply to all his future doings: “He is very intelligent . . . I have a mere suspicion that he may be slightly overzealous in grasping opportunities, which causes him to take the corners a little too sharply.” He was plausible, but not plausible enough.

More than a “mere suspicion” consistently arose in those who, because of Marston’s enthusiasm and confidence, at first gave him the benefit of the doubt. He was overexcited, too cocksure, and ardent to a considerable fault; all but his few most admiring supporters eventually abandoned him. His ex-students used his lie-detection process in court in Frye v. United States, but they got short shrift from the judge, who ruled it experimental and inadmissible. Marston offered his services to Lindbergh, assuring him he could find his baby son, and was ignored. He checked in with every possible organization that might have some use for his process. Eventually, the Office of Military Intelligence, the NYPD, the Department of War, and the Department of Justice all rejected Marston’s offering. One agent at the FBI, who after investigating Marston’s attempt to sell his process to advertising by using it to provide “evidence” that Gillette blades shaved closer than others, noted, “I always thought this fellow Marston was a phony & this proves it.”

Although the lie detector remains a clumsy tool for divining truth and is still widely inadmissible as evidence, the process has had a long and functional life of its own, and seemed for some time seductively full of promise for law, medicine, and the military. But it wasn’t Marston who popularized the machine, though he may have been the first to think of its applications. He got in his own way, put people off, and oversold the product, which anyway relied too much on him for its operation. In 1931 Leonard Keeler eased past him with a standalone machine he called a “polygraph,” which he patented and packaged as a device rather than, as Marston had, a process. It was promoted and sold effectively, and was bought by police departments all over the United States, leaving Marston needing to find another route to the prominence he believed he deserved. He gave up on law and after several bankruptcies as well as numerous schemes and failures went back to academia, achieving a unique reverse career that he began with a professorship at American University; gradually, as he was revealed to be too strange or unreliable, he slid down the “academic ladder, rung by rung . . . to assistant professor at Tufts, to lecturer at Columbia.” In between, he reentered the movie business, answering an advertisement placed by Carl Laemmle of Universal Studios, for a psychologist:

Somewhere in this country there is a practical psychologist — accomplished in the science of the mind — who will fit into the Universal organization. He can be of real help in analyzing certain plot situations and forecasting how the public will react to them. As moving pictures are reaching out more and more for refinements, such a mental showman will have great influence on the screens of the world. I will pay well for such a person.

If ever there was a mental showman waiting for an invitation, it was Marston. He got the job, hooked up young women to his lie detector while they watched emotional movies, and explained how it all worked to a reporter: “A motion picture must be true to life. If a picture portrays a false emotion it trains people seeing it to react abnormally. It is a false emotion which shows man as the leader and dictator in a love affair. Woman should be shown as the leader every time. She controls and directs the love affair. Maybe she uses her supposed submission to a cave man to get more of a grip on him ultimately. But the picture should show cave man appeal operates only as a challenge to that woman to captivate that pretty tough bird!”

His special claim as a psychologist rested on his unique analysis of the four primary emotions: Dominance, Compliance, Inducement, and Submission. Later, Captivation (sadistic teasing) was added. Not a lot of William James there, but the four emotions represent more or less the underlying beat of Marston’s emotional life as well as that of his only real professional success, the creation of Wonder Woman. On its own, all this would be an engaging tale of an undisciplined, talented, blustery man who conned himself as much as he conned others. Lepore serves him well, not laughing at him or losing patience with him more than can be helped, and showing him the respect of keeping her distance, as she does with all the individuals in the story. She’s careful not to rush to judgment but doesn’t avoid necessary conclusions, and — a great and rather rare bonus in a biographer — refers to them all by their family names, eschewing the first- name intimacy writers seem to think brings them and their readers closer to their subject, but which actually cloys and obscures.

Marston is not the lonely hero of this story. Along with him — because of him, beyond him, or perhaps in spite of him — his story includes several extraordinary women who were linked to him, as well as to each other. Their lives are a reminder that the vision of “free women” is far from contemporary. But they are also a reminder that the most intelligent and competent woman’s choice of man can be unfathomable and self-defeating, undermining her passionately held ambitions and political beliefs. It is undeniable, as Lepore tells the story, that however foolish and fanciful Marston was, women assisted him in gaining worldly success and concealed from him his many failings, sometimes in a way that prevented their own progress in the world, and sometimes in a way that did not support the other women in their lives. Lepore suggests this rather than laying it out, but the effect of the story on the reader is a sense of these women’s derailment and loss as a result of their domestic choices, as well as a sorrow at their withdrawal from the clear and vital political and social principles they held. They were pretty radical, not just for their time but for the way of the world, then and now.*

Sadie Elizabeth Holloway was a childhood friend of William Marston. They knew each other in the eighth grade and married in 1915 after they both graduated from university. Holloway decided to go to postgraduate law school like Marston. “It never occurred to me not to go if that’s what I wanted to do,” she said, sounding as bold as any young woman now. At sixteen her mother gave her John Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies, in which she read that “a girl’s education should be nearly, in its course and material of study, the same as a boy’s.” She went on to study at the first women’s college in America, Mount Holyoke, where the talk was of “New Women,” their education, and their right to vote. Lepore suggests that a parody of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s “Declaration of Sentiments” mockingly called an “Amazonian Declaration of Independence,” which was written by a representative of a nearby boys’ seminary and read to the Mount Holyoke students, had a rather different effect on the women students than the writer had hoped. The mythic matriarchy of Amazons, in which warrior women had dominion, was as innately appealing to radical suffragettes as women’s communes were to activists in the 1970s. One of Hercules’ tasks was to take possession of the girdle of their queen, Hippolyte. In some versions, Theseus is said to have married her and her sister, Antiope, and taken them off to Attica. It was a good enough allegory to remain in Holloway’s mind, it seems.

Holloway’s marriage to Marston developed, or at least widened, when Marston met Olive Byrne, a young woman given up in childhood by her mother, Ethel Byrne, who had left her marriage for single independence when her son was three and Olive two. Ethel was the sister of Margaret, whose married name was Sanger, the formidable feminist who notoriously battled in and out of the U.S. courts for the right of women to contraception and control over their own fertility. Ethel was no less radical than Margaret but was gradually written out of the feminist story by her sister: after Ethel almost died in a prison fast, Margaret agreed, on her sister’s behalf but without her consent, that in return for her freedom and the saving of her life, Ethel would not undertake any more political activity.

Olive Byrne, brought up by her grandparents and in Catholic orphanages, was as bright and freethinking as her mother and aunt. Eventually she met up again with Ethel, who sent her to be one of the Eton-cropped “boyettes” at Jackson College, the women’s college of Tufts University, where it happened that Marston in his downward academic trajectory had landed as assistant professor of philosophy. Sadie Holloway was by then the managing editor of the psychology journal Child Study, in New York. Byrne, unsurprisingly, was not only modern and forthright but also an unhappy and lonely young woman of eighteen. Eventually, Marston taught her, and then she began to work for him as his research assistant. When she was ready to take up a postgraduate place at Columbia, Marston suggested that she lodge with him and Holloway, who was ten years her senior. At some point, Marston gave Holloway an ultimatum: either they would live as a threesome, with Marston hopping from one bed to the other, or he would leave her. By this time, aged thirty-two, he weighed 200 pounds; he went on to hit a high of 300.

Both women accommodated his wishes, but Lepore, like anyone gazing at the seemingly contradictory desires and decisions of people in the past, can’t exactly explain why. They settled into an arrangement that did seem to suit Holloway and perhaps Byrne; the former being the breadwinner and career woman, the latter having babies and giving up her educational plans to become a full-time parent to both her own and Holloway’s children. In some way, this must have fulfilled the women’s desires, for all that it required each to narrow her role in either the marriage or her working life. Without Marston’s presence, it would even have looked like the two women were in a conventional marriage with each other, dividing the labor as most other couples did. Later, after Marston died, Holloway and Byrne continued to live together, “inseparable” until Byrne died in 1990. Sometimes another feminist, Marjorie Wilkes Huntley, made extended visits, during which Holloway and Huntley shared a bedroom and Byrne slept separately. Lepore makes no assumptions about the relationship between the two women who were “married” to Marston; he must have provided them with something that kept them by him all his life. Nevertheless, his ability to maintain their affection is a little baffling. We are left with the image of charisma and the charm of the con artist, but it’s hard to feel the power at this distance.

Along with their occasional drop-in lover Huntley, the Marston threesome attended the weekly salon of Marston’s aunt, Carolyn Marston Keatley, who was an Aquarian decades before the Age of Aquarius was announced at the Public Theater in 1967. The New Age was the age of love, and it had very specific roles to be played. Lepore calls the salon a “sexual training camp” where members were taught how “Love Leaders” and their “Mistresses” formed a “Love Unit” with their “Love Girl.” Love Girls “do not believe in or practice escape from or concealment of the love organs.”

Somehow, in 1941, amid all this feminism, mythology, and overwrought bondage-heavy sexuality, Wonder Woman came about. The Amazon Princess Diana leaves Paradise Island with Steve Trevor, who crash-landed there, to go to America where, with bracelets that can stop bullets, her magic lasso of truth that prevents anyone surrounded by it from lying (rather like Marston’s truth detector), she disguises herself as secretary Diana Prince and fights the forces of hate and oppression. There are versions of Wonder Woman’s birth that suggest Holloway was responsible for making her a female superhero, but she always denied it.

In Marston’s hands (along with Harry G. Peter’s drawings) Wonder Woman embodies the liberated woman, even if she does pose as a secretary. Who among us hasn’t done that or the equivalent at one time or another? In her true garb of eagle-emblazoned corset, flag-starred short shorts, and dominatrix high-heeled knee boots, she rights wrongs and joins Superman, Batman, Flash, and the Green Lantern in the Justice Society of America (yes, again as a secretary, but still . . . ). Lepore describes her not altogether beneficent career as a feminist icon:

Wonder Woman isn’t only an Amazonian princess with badass boots. She’s the missing link in a chain of events that begins with the woman suffrage campaigns of the nineteen-teens and ends with the troubled place of feminism fully a century later. Feminism made Wonder Woman. And then Wonder Woman remade feminism, which hasn’t always been especially good for feminism. Superheroes are excellent at clobbering people; at fighting for equality, they’re hobbled by the fact that they’re supposed to be better than everyone else.

Marston believed himself to be a feminist, and he had, for the time, an unusual respect for the rights of women, even if his own home life looks more like that of a silverback gorilla. It’s certainly an odd feminism that appears in Wonder Woman, one that stems as much from Marston’s deep sexual fetishes as from a rational understanding of equality. “The secret of woman’s allure,” said Marston, creator of the first and finest female comic hero, is that “women enjoy submission — being bound.” This was the whole point of Wonder Woman: “the only hope for peace is to teach people . . . to enjoy being bound — enjoy submission to kind authority, wise authority, not merely tolerate such submission. Wars will only cease when humans enjoy being bound.

From her inception, Wonder Woman has had to survive in spite of the men who made her. In the 1950s and 1960s, after Marston’s death, the new writers tried to get her back into the kitchen, trimming her powers while maintaining her ladylike craving for male domination. In the 1950s, the comic was written by Robert Kanigher, who found Marston’s at least somewhat empowered Wonder Woman “grotesque” and “inhuman.” She became, as Lepore laments, “a babysitter, a fashion model, and a movie star. She wanted, desperately, to marry Steve. She gave advice to the lovelorn, as the author of a lonely-hearts newspaper advice column.”

Lepore is right to view the history of Wonder Woman through the lens of a hundred years of feminism. It’s a book that must have been fun to write, as it certainly is, in some ways, to read. In the 1970s, when the women’s movement once again became angry and bold, Wonder Woman was appropriated by feminists. There she is in 1970 on the cover of It Ain’t Me Babe: Women’s Liberation, alongside a dangerous-looking Olive Oyl, charging toward the radical future. And in 1972, DC Comics brought out a special “women’s lib” issue, with Diana Prince in a turtleneck sweater and flared jeans, her hair loose around her shoulders, heading straight for the reader holding a lamp to shine the way to liberation. The “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby” feel is as mediated by commercial interests as the Virginia Slim advertisements. More encouragingly, in 1972 Ms. magazine featured our heroine on the cover, looming over the city, larger by far than the fifty-foot woman. She’s holding on to her lasso of truth, back in her bondage gear, with the headline wonder woman for president. (It never happened.) In July of this year, DC Comics announced a new team in charge of Wonder Woman. David Finch is to be the artist and his wife, Meredith Finch, will collaborate with him on the stories. What does the brand-new Wonder Woman tell us about the state of feminism? Too much, I’m afraid.

“I think she’s a beautiful, strong character,” Meredith Finch said in an interview. “We want to make sure it’s a book that treats her as a human being first and foremost, but is also respectful of the fact that she represents something more. We want her to be a strong — I don’t want to say feminist, but a strong character. Beautiful, but strong.”

We don’t want to say “feminist.” We seem to need to be very careful about the word. “Strong” is safer, but even that has to be qualified: beautiful but strong. Not so much Wonder Woman Lite as Wonder Woman But.

’s most recent book is What I Don’t Know About Animals (Yale). Her last review for Harper’s Magazine, “Bewitched,” appeared in the December 2013 issue.

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