For several days, I’ve been absorbed by Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman. I once idealized (and still do) this superheroine. As a girl, I read every comic I could find about her because she embodied something lacking in many female’s lives: power. And freedom. Though she had a public persona as the secretary Diana Prince, she could shed that mask and become her true self—an Amazon who was Superman’s equal.
Unfortunately, discovering her origins has been disillusioning. In a way, I’m sorry that I found Lepore’s book. I would prefer to think of Wonder Woman as a mythic figure who actually is part of an Amazon world, still fighting for freedom and justice.
Alas, all good illusions are destined to become disillusions. It turns out that she was William Moulton Marston’s creation. A psychologist who produced the polygraph and who failed to make his mark in academia, he also was a major, perhaps a pathological, liar. Much that his creation represented—peace, high ideals, and integrity—he lacked.
While Wonder Woman used the lasso of truth to force anyone she captured to tell and understand the absolute truth, Marston was living a massive lie. He shared a house with three women (simultaneously), one of whom he married, Elizabeth “Sadie” Holloway Marston. She was a kind of wonder woman herself in the early 1900s, supporting the whole household since Marston was unable to hold jobs for long and wasn’t a reliable provider. The ménage à trois that at times was a ménage à quatre produced at least four children, all of whom Marston fathered.
But Marston redeemed himself somewhat in my eyes by inventing a character that still has clout and embodies his feminist ideals. He believed women were superior, and they certainly did rule in his household, all of them strong suffragettes in spite of being somewhat under his thumb. And images of Wonder Woman herself in a skimpy pin-up girl outfit would inflame most contemporary feminists.
Still, in the early 1940s, the women’s movement was being revived, and Wonder Woman helped to feed that development. So while I would prefer that Wonder Woman were Athena and had sprang full grown from Zeus’s head rather than Marston’s, I’m grateful that she exists no matter what her origins were.