We all know that William Moulton Marston, the creator of wonder Woman, was a bit odd. He had two “wives” and he was heavy into bondage. But did you know that one of the women he shared his life with was the niece of birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger—who liked to wear bracelets? And that Sanger may have been the inspiration for Wonder Woman?
These are only a few of the historical facts uncovered by Harvard history professor Jill Lepore in her upcoming volume The Secret History of Wonder Woman. It turns out a lot of that history is very secret, but Lepore has gone through Marston’s hitherto unseen private papers, and correspondence from his wife, Sadie Elizabeth Holloway, and Olive Byrne, the third housemate, and niece of Sanger. Lepore is also a staff writer at The New Yorker and a few weeks back her article for that magazine laid out the bare bones of the story.
In 1917, when motion pictures were still a novelty and the United States had only just entered the First World War, Sanger starred in a silent film called “Birth Control”; it was banned. A century of warfare, feminism, and cinema later, superhero movies—adaptations and updates of mid-twentieth-century comic books whose plots revolve around anxieties about mad scientists, organized crime, tyrannical super-states, alien invaders, misunderstood mutants, and world-ending weapons—are the super-blockbusters of the last superpower left standing. No one knows how Wonder Woman will fare onscreen: there’s hardly ever been a big-budget superhero movie starring a female superhero. But more of the mystery lies in the fact that Wonder Woman’s origins have been, for so long, so unknown. It isn’t only that Wonder Woman’s backstory is taken from feminist utopian fiction. It’s that, in creating Wonder Woman, William Moulton Marston was profoundly influenced by early-twentieth-century suffragists, feminists, and birth-control advocates and that, shockingly, Wonder Woman was inspired by Margaret Sanger, who, hidden from the world, was a member of Marston’s family.
This week, there’s a piece Lepore has written for The Smithsonian with much of the same material but some new stuff too, such as the role of Dr. Lauretta Bender a psychiatrist who was something of the anti-Wertham:
Gaines decided he needed another expert. He turned to Lauretta Bender, an associate professor of psychiatry at New York University’s medical school and a senior psychiatrist at Bellevue Hospital, where she was director of the children’s ward, an expert on aggression. She’d long been interested in comics but her interest had grown in 1940, after her husband, Paul Schilder, was killed by a car while walking home from visiting Bender and their 8-day-old daughter in the hospital. Bender, left with three children under the age of 3, soon became painfully interested in studying how children cope with trauma. In 1940, she conducted a study with Reginald Lourie, a medical resident under her supervision, investigating the effect of comics on four children brought to Bellevue Hospital for behavioral problems. Tessie, 12, had witnessed her father, a convicted murderer, kill himself. She insisted on calling herself Shiera, after a comic-book girl who is always rescued at the last minute by the Flash. Kenneth, 11, had been raped. He was frantic unless medicated or “wearing a Superman cape.” He felt safe in it—he could fly away if he wanted to—and “he felt that the cape protected him from an assault.” Bender and Lourie concluded the comic books were “the folklore of this age,” and worked, culturally, the same way fables and fairy tales did.
With Wonder Woman finally getting a crack at being a big time character again, I’m sure all of this secret history will be sifted for evidence pro or con, and will add to the “complicated” nature of the character. I expect anyone who gets the Wonder Woman writing should probably read this book cover to cover…and so should anyone interested in the history of one of the great superheroes.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.