Sunday, November 30, 2014


Sufferin’ Suffragists, Superwoman! It’s Wonder Woman! And she doesn’t need a fey cape like all the super hero guys. Because their stories pale next to hers. She appeared in the dark days of World War II, in 1941. When what the world needed was another heroine!

Her creator was an odd duck of a man. William Moulton Marston was born and raised in a sprawling medieval turreted manor north of Boston. You can’t make this stuff up—there’s a photo of the manor early in Jill Lepore’s book. It looks like the home of a Batman villain we could imagine as, say, Turretman, who masquerades as an evil slum building architect by day.

It’s hard to believe that Wonder Woman sprang from the head of someone raised in this neo-Romanesque heap. But she did. Marston was an unusual man. He invented the first lie detector device, and failed to patent it, while someone else improved on it, and patented it. He was often unemployed, and although he attended Harvard, he was very rarely employed to lecture at a university. Throughout his life he founded one business after another, only to see them fail. At one point he even claimed in magazine ads, that his lie detector could prove that Gillette razor blades were the best shaving blades on the market.

While Marston was trying to find a career, the period before and after the First World War, saw a growth in demands by women for equality. The United States government deigned to give them the vote in 1919. Women also demanded access to birth control, and the right to decide whether they would have children or not. At that time, these demands were met with contemptuous male resistance, that often included jail sentences for suffragists. Many men responded similarly, decades later in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Once again men rejected or resisted the news from women like Germaine Greer, Betty Friedan, Susan Brownmiller, Carol Gilligan, Kate Millett and Shulamith Firestone.

There are more unusual echoes between these two periods. The early period, covered in detail by Lepore, at one point launches its concerns 50 years into the future. The suffragist Ethel Byrne is imprisoned in 1917 for showing women how to use birth control devices. Her health begins to fail during her hunger strike, and the New York Tribune newspaper prints an editorial aimed at the governor of New York, asking him to pardon Byrne. Its appeal is both timely and peculiarly prescient: “It will be hard to make the youth of 1967 believe that in 1917 a woman was imprisoned for doing what Mrs. Byrne did.” The youth of 1967 found themselves on the cusp of another great feminist wave.

As for that perennial also-ran-out-of-work, William Moulton Marston, he continued to move from one failure to another. Although he did manage to find small sources of income, much of his income came from the women who lived with him, and who worked out in the world, and bore his children, in a ménage à trois that would have appeared peculiar later, even by the standards of those distant ménages à trois outposts in the 1960s. As for his creation, Wonder Woman, after numerous references to her, she finally appears with illustrations almost 200 pages into the book. And becomes the most popular superhero in a time of many superheroes. Lepore’s presentation of the little known history of a now distant time, is deeply informed by her research, and by her thoughtful understanding of the wonder women who fought for change so long ago.

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