Saturday, July 30, 2016

How Wonder Woman Got Into Harvard



(originally published November 3, 2014)

Jill Lepore is one of those people who can expertly, yet completely organically, engage an audience. Her off-the-cuff speaking style and sheer exuberance is charming. Her lectures are fraught with details that sometimes flow at high speed, and reactions from the audience are frequent and often accompanied by gasps and bursts of laughter. The crowd gathered last week at the Radcliffe Institute for her presentation on her latest work, The Secret History of Wonder Woman.

Harvard man William Moulton Marsten is the inventor of the lie detector. So is there a connection between his pursuit of finding the truth and Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth? Indeed. There are many links to Marsten’s life and the heroine who joined the Justice League in the early 1940s. Strongly influenced by the aims of the suffragette movement in the early twentieth century, Dr. Marsten created the character of Wonder Woman with specific goals in mind. She was to “set a standard among children and young people of strong, free, courageous womanhood; and to combat the idea that women are inferior to men, and to inspire girls to self-confidence and achievement in athletics, occupations, and professions monopolized by men” because “the only hope for civilization is the greater freedom, development, and equality of women in all fields of human activity,” according to the press release from 1940. An expert in psychology, he sought to create psychological propaganda for the new type of woman.

Harvard peppers his story. Called “Holliday College,” Wonder Woman storms the gates time and again in the early years of the comic. Many sources were used to produce Wonder Woman’s backstory. Some inspiration is partially derived from the works of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a prolific writer and advocate for women’s rights. When viewing art that inspired the comic, a strong correlation is drawn to artist Lou Rogers, who drew many illustrations for the cause of women’s right to vote. In Wonder Woman’s early adventures, being bound in chains was a frequent plot device. Seeing portrayals of her bursting from the chains with broken links flying out attached to words like “prejudice, prudery, and man’s superiority” had a dramatic effect, one which has unfortunately been lost over the decades with the death of Dr. Marsten and his replacement making Wonder Woman a much more docile figure.
Parallels to the suffragette movement are seen throughout the comics. White horses became a symbol of the movement, particularly when Inez Milholland led a procession in 1913, tiara and all. What followed were frequent images of Wonder Woman riding a white horse, championing a range of causes for the 1940s audience. She was an activist for a progressive era, and she also fought corruption—and many of the issues she spoke out against reflect many of the issues we see today—corporate monopolies, unfair systems, and so on.


Researching Dr. Marsten’s was a delicate business for Lepore, due to his unconventional lifestyle. The family protected many of the details over the years. After graduation with his bachelor’s from Harvard, he married sweetheart Elizabeth Holloway. As a professor at Tufts University, he fell in love with Olive Byrne, and the three became involved in a polyamorous relationship that cost him his career in academia. He later served as an advisor for Universal Pictures, helping them gauge the level of fear a movie-going audience could take with their outpouring of horror films that seem to campy to us today. The threesome had 4 children in total, two by each woman, and Elizabeth and Olive continued to live together for more than four decades after Marsten’s death in 1947.

With the introduction of Olive in his life, the feminist influence grew even stronger. Her mother and aunt, Ethel Byrne and Margaret Sanger, co-founded the birth control rights movement. When Ethel went on a hunger strike (for talking about birth control broke obscenity laws), a deal was made with Margaret so Ethel could be released. This early effort to raise the issue of birth control eventually became Planned Parenthood.

As World War II raged, the Justice League fought the Axis powers and became a central theme to many comics. Once the war was over, a multitude of comics foundered and went out of business. Some later were reinvented in later decades as the comic world grew. But Wonder Woman was always there, though her ascent was a bit bumpy at first. When she first joined the League, she was a mere secretary, signing the letters of membership for kids who signed up. But once she gained momentum, she was a force to be reckoned with, and had no time for marriage.

Wonder Woman’s story took a dramatic decline after Dr. Marsten’s death. When Elizabeth and Olive offered to continue to the story, they were told on no uncertain terms by DC Comics that ladies couldn’t be involved in comics. The job was handed to new writers, who watered down her activist persona and made her much softer, and all doe-eyed over Steve Trevor, the pilot she helps when he crashed on Paradise Island in the first portion of the story. A revamping in the 1960s made her style groovier, but it was clear she had lost her way as a feminist powerhouse. Unfortunately, it hasn’t gotten much better.


Jill Lepore commented on recent Wonder Woman comics, and how, much like a lot of entertainment these days, is glorified violence and little substance in terms of character. Despite the overwhelming slew of movies based on comics, with several on Batman and Superman, sadly, they’ve been slow to put Wonder Woman on the docket. And as awesome blogs such as The Mary Sue and i09 show point out, our heroine is even left off the toy shelf sometimes, as can be seen in this Target display, where she’s not to be found at all among the members of the Justice League. While I haven’t read The Secret History of Wonder Woman yet, the title occupies a top slot in my list of books to dig into soon. Knowing Lepore’s brilliance in research, this will prove to be a fascinating read.


Leaving the lecture, I wondered what Dr. Marsten would have thought if he had known that the heated discussions of his day are ongoing, and even sliding backward. Wonder Woman’s legacy should be more than a tantalizing outfit or besotted gazing at Steve Trevor. She stood for something of immense value—the belief that little girls could grow up and achieve anything. Today’s political discourse about women is horrifying. Amplifying women’s roles in entertainment and culture is a key step in changing that, and it’s time to put Wonder Woman on that white horse again and march her down Main Street, USA, and indeed, across the world, to make for a better future. 

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