After randomly tuning into NPR’s “Fresh Air” one night last fall as I was driving, I heard Terry Gross interviewing the author of a book titled “The Secret History of Wonder Woman”. The teaser before the break was “come back to hear about the person who created the Wonder Woman comic strip, and how he had a much more interesting life than the icon he created.”
Well that piqued my attention, so I stayed tuned.
The guest was the book’s author, Jill Lepore. She and Terry discussed the book, and what made the author’s life so interesting; William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman’s creator, was polyamorous.
Well ok, then. NOW I’m really interested.
As the interview went on, the two women giggled like schoolgirls as Ms. Lepore discussed how Marston met his wife, Elizabeth when the two were in elementary school in the 1900s. They grew up together, got married, and lived a yuppie life of him teaching at a university and her working at a life insurance company. Things were hunky dory until one day, Marston informed his wife that he’d fallen in love with one of his students (more giggles) and wanted to bring her home to live with them (even MORE giggles), and Elizabeth’s initial reaction (LOTS MORE giggling here – and I’m not going to spoil this review by revealing what that reaction was).
I was feeling somewhat irritated at all the damn giggling and yet becoming insanely curious about how these three could pull off polyamory at a time when women weren’t allowed to vote or use birth control, among other things. The two giggled throughout the interview until the end, but they had achieved their desired outcome: using my phone, I bought the book before I even made it home.
It would be an understatement to say this book was painstaking researched by Ms. Lepore. At 410 pages, it’s roughly divided into four parts: Part One is the backstory of William and Elizabeth’s childhood and education, and ends when William meets Olive Byrne, one of his students, and falls in love. Part Two is the most interesting; how the three of them negotiate their relationship as a polyamorous triad. Their very unconventional approaches to sex, childbearing and childrearing make this section an excellent read. Later on a fourth female appears, Marjorie Huntley, and lives with the triad off and on as William Marston’s occasional lover. It is assumed, but never directly revealed, that the women engaged in sex with each other. Readers will also be in awe of the things that Olive Byrne gave up in order to live her life as Marston’s lover.
Part Three covers the evolution of Wonder Woman, from concept to completion, and Part Four is a blow-by-blow listing of references, annotations and attributions. The entire story is set against the backdrop of the Women’s Suffrage movement; a time of great political, social and economic change. Marston himself was influenced by early suffragists and feminists, and argued that Wonder Woman was the missing link in the history of the struggle for women’s rights.
What makes this such an interesting book is the irony in their stories. Marston and Byrne wrote a regular column for Family Circle magazine in the 1930s, celebrating conventional family life as they themselves pursued lives of extraordinary nonconformity. Marston was also an internationally recognized expert on truth – he invented the lie-detector test. But he himself lived a life of secrets, only to subliminally and subtly spill them later on the pages of Wonder Woman.
If you were a Wonder Woman fan, like history and are intrigued by how early polyamorous lovers survived against the stigma of ethical non-monogamy, this book is for you.