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Wonder Woman and Margaret Sanger, separated at birth.

The Secret History of Wonder Woman

Lepore convincingly makes Wonder Woman the connective tissue between the suffragists and the women’s movement, but the story behind her genesis is just fricken’ amazing and almost unbelievable. William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman’s creator, was, A, a man, B, married to one woman, sleeping with two others and living happily with all three, C, was fascinated by bondage and tied, chained, fettered and imprisoned WW, the first female superhero, in every comic cell he could, D, a Harvard graduate whose lazy, sloppy research and weird teaching practices pretty much had him drummed out of academia, E, invented the lie detector, F through Z I could go on but why should I spoil it for you? You’re so going to want to read this book for yourself.

Remember Margaret Sanger? Mother of birth control, we pretty much have the Pill because of her? She’s the model for Wonder Woman, although she never acknowledged that she knew Marston or said she was his second wife’s aunt, and she would have died a thousand deaths if she’d lived to have seen the David Levine cartoon of her dressed in a Wonder Woman-inspired costume, trampolining off a diaphragm. Levine had no idea of her relationship to the Marston menage because the family kept their living situation such a deep dark secret. Nevertheless

Voluntary motherhood, Sanger argued in Woman and the New Race, “is for woman the key to the temple of liberty.”…It was a matter of liberating the “feminine spirit”–a spirit well represented in the poems of Sappho of Lesbos, who, Sanger explained, “sought to arouse the Greek wives to the expression of their individual selves,” their sexual selves. The feminine spirit, Sanger wrote, “manifests itself most frequently in motherhood, but it is greater than maternity…The philosophy of Margaret Sanger’s Woman and the New Race would turn out to be the philosophy of Wonder Woman…Years later, when Marston hired a young woman named Joye Hummel to help him write Wonder Woman, Olive Byrne [Marston’s second wife] gave Hummel a copy of Woman and the New Race. Read this, she told her, and you’ll know everything you need to know about Wonder Woman.

The last 150 pages of this book are notes, bibliography and index, she’s really done her homework, but Lepore never lets the research get in the way of the story, or of the general air of bemusement that wafts up from every page. Along the way you come across such historical tidbits as this post-World War II snapshot

Women went home. Women’s rights went underground. And homosexuals were persecuted. Is there a “quick test like an X-ray that discloses these things?” U.S. Senator Margaret Chase Smith asked in hearings about homosexuality in 1950.

Et tu, Margaret?

Marston died in 1947 and DC Comics abandoned Wonder Woman to the merciless care of writer Robert Kanigher, who

[…] hated the character he called “the grotesque inhuman original Wonder Woman.”…Wonder Woman became a babysitter, a fashion model, and a movie star. She wanted, desperately, to marry Steve. She gave advice to the lovelorn, as the author of a lonely-hearts newspaper advice column.

From helping defeat the Germans and the Japanese in World War II, to this. Later they even took away her powers and her magic lasso and her invisible plane. Someone at DC Comics should have been shot. She was rehabilitated (and pretty much reimagined) by Gloria Steinem on the cover of the first issue of Ms. Magazine, and along with Batman and Superman is the only comic book superhero to have survived from inception into the present day. No matter what horrible thing they did to her character, she’s still here.

This is a terrific book about American history, women’s history, comic book history, the ability of families to hide reality and to hide from it, and the truly amazing facility of all human beings to ignore what is right in front of them. Highly, highly recommended.

More reviews on Goodreads.

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