This wasn’t what I was expecting, but it was pretty good all the same. I think this three star rating is due to two things: 1) I was expecting more of a history of Wonder Woman the character with some stuff about her creator(s) thrown in as well, and what I got was a history of her creator(s) in full, along with a healthy side order of what was actually going on in history at the time, with an emphasis on the history of feminism, with like 15% focus on Wonder Woman herself; and 2) I listened to most of this while packing and unpacking for my move, and I was very distracted and didn’t pay it my full attention.
The general gist of this book is actually pretty well known now, thanks to this book, and to the film from a couple of years ago, but just in case you’re not aware, Wonder Woman’s creator, William Moulton Marston, was in a polyamorous relationship with two women (and sometimes a third who wandered in and out), one whom he was married to, and the other who lived with him and told everyone her children’s father was dead, but Marston was the father of all four children who lived in the house. Marston and his wife Betty adopted the other two kids, but all three acted as parents, and Olive Byrne went to her grave refusing to admit the true nature of her relationship. The children themselves only had confirmation of their parentage when Betty told her son’s new wife (noted feminist Margaret Sanger’s grandchild; Olive Byrne was Sanger’s niece). Betty (or Holloway, as the author calls her throughout the book) and Olive were the inspiration for Wonder Woman, along with Sanger, but the connection remained hidden for decades because Byrne refused to acknowledge her relationship to Marston. (After Marston died, Olive and Betty stayed together until the end of their lives. In total, the two women lived together for sixty-four years and were most likely involved romantically themselves, although the historical data there is lacking, excepting a letter from Margaret Sanger asking that the two of them make sure to stay in the room with the separate beds, not her room, while they housesat for her.)
Marston, who was also the inventor of the lie detector test, was a weird guy who professed loudly and publicly his support of feminism, and even once held a press conference saying that in a 1,000 years, women would rule the world (after the gender wars, of course). He had sexual proclivities that he slipped into his comics, and which got him into trouble (an editor once pleaded with him to at least cut back the bondage scenes to a reasonable number). And yet he barely made any money, and while he was the nominal head of the household, the actual head was Betty, who made all the money, and Olive, who cared for the children. To note the kind of guy Marston was, he genuinely almost killed himself when he was eighteen because he wasn’t doing perfectly in all of his classes, and if he couldn’t be the best, then what is even the point of living? He was saved by his philosophy professor, who gave Marston a subject to become obsessed with, and to channel all his very weird energy into.
As a background to all of this, Lepore traces the feminist movement from the early 1900s all the way through the deaths of Marston, Olive and Betty. The focus here is very historical, and Lepore mentions Wonder Woman stories and characteristics as a way to illuminate real life or the life of her subjects, and not the other way around. She does also talk a bit about the obscenity controversies in the 1930s, in regards to both birth control and comics. There’s really a lot of interesting information packed in to this book, but I just couldn’t get over wanting it to be more of a history of Wonder Woman herself, and her evolution, when it really wasn’t.
Still, worth checking out, I think, if you’re interested in the history of feminism, and seeing what a historical polyamorous relationship looked like.