The Secret History of Wonder Woman

I read a bit of wisdom from my friend Margaret Miles a long time ago that I continue to quote repeatedly and enthusiastically at every opportunity:  “Read promiscuously.”  I love it because it points to the serendipitous rewards that await the reader who ventures outsider her comfort zone, and chooses to read books on topics she doesn’t know anything about, written by authors she has never heard of.  Oh sure, sometimes you strike out, but more often than not, not only do you learn interesting new things, but you also expand your own areas of experience and expertise by building bridges between the old and the new, the familiar and the strange.  You don’t know what you’ll find until you go looking, and the encouragement to “read promiscuously” sends you out into the library or bookstore in the guise of an intrepid explorer, wandering foreign aisles with strange titles.  You don’t have to be a complete book nerd to see how exhilarating this can be [although it helps.]

The book I want to write about in this blog post doesn’t technically fall into the “strange new” category for me–I admit to having a deep, longstanding affection for Wonder Woman since my childhood.  And, to be honest, I’m hard-pressed to remember which came first:  my introduction to her as part of The Justice League–one of my very favorite Saturday morning cartoons, enjoyed every week with my brother and a bowl full of Honeycombs or Lucky Charms; or my enthusiasm for that great 70s TV show starring Lynda Carter.  I loved them both.

                                             Excursus:  The charms of Lynda Carter
May I take a moment here to extol the virtues of Lynda Carter?  Lynda Carter was gorgeous.  Lynda Carter was fully in command of every situation.  Lynda Carter had Steve Trevor wrapped around her little finger.  And man, was Lynda Carter smiley!  I mean, a sparkling, dazzling full-teeth smile that assured you that everything was going to be all right; and, gee, wasn’t it really a pretty great world all around [well, country–this was a very patriotic show after all].  She was and is far and away the happiest embodiment of any superhero I have ever come across, hands down.  No Batman-darkness here, no Superman-homesickness–it was always sunny in Wonder Woman’s neck of the woods.  Needless to say, I loved Lynda Carter; and I’m not ashamed to say that I tried out the whole spinning thing in the yard to see if it might actually work.  Alas, it did not.  [Remember, on the TV show, a couple of quick spins, some well-placed lightening and thunder, and presto–Diana Prince was replaced by Wonder Woman.  The sartorial aspect of the transformation always puzzled me, however….where did her clothes go, and how did she get them back?]

I have to say that another part of the appeal of Wonder Woman for me was that I loved Greek mythology; and I had read about the labors of Hercules at a young age, so I knew all about the Amazons, and Queen Hippolyta’s magic girdle.  So, I also liked Wonder Woman’s back-story.  With all this in mind, then, it probably isn’t surprising that when a book comes along with the title The Secret History of Wonder Woman--and that fabulous cover-I would be interested; but still I will be eternally grateful to Sunni & our book group for choosing it to read last month:  without that push, it might still be languishing on my shelf.

So, here are the three reasons why you should read it–even if you aren’t so interested in Wonder Woman herself.  First, the crazy life story of her creator, William Moulton Marston: Harvard grad, inventor of the lie detector, secret polygamist, and continual self-promoter.  [And, it must be said, man with a clear bondage fetish].  Second, and more important, the connection between Wonder Woman and the women’s liberation movement.  Marston and his wife Sadie Holloway were both strong promoters of early feminism, and it’s really fascinating to see how he wrote his opposition to women’s subjugation into the early Wonder Woman comic strips.  

Finally, and most importantly, I would say–at least for me–was Marston’s connection to Margaret Sanger [his second “wife,” Olive Byrne, was Sanger’s niece].  I really didn’t know much about the context in which Sanger was working, and how very courageous she was–and how outrageous the laws were governing women and their bodies in the early decades of the 20th century.  Here is one of the most shocking statements of the whole book.  When Sanger was on trial in 1917 for violating a law again distributing “any recipe, drug or medicine for the prevention of conception,” the judge ruled the following:  “No woman has the right to copulate with a feeling of security that there will be no resulting conception.”  Lepore goes on to say that underlying this statement is the belief that “if a woman isn’t willing to die in childbirth, she shouldn’t have sex.”  Women forget this history at our own peril.

The reproductions of those early comic strips are fabulous too, and not to be missed.  I highly recommend it.

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