Secret History of Wonder Woman coverJill Lapore has written a book with the seductive title The Secret History of Wonder Woman. And hers isn’t the only secret in the book. William Moulton Marston, the creator of WW, had a secret life that he never revealed to the public.

Wonder Woman, Lapore asserts in a condensation of her book in The New Yorker’s September 22 issue, has a backstory that “is taken from feminist utopian fiction,” and she was inspired by Margaret Sanger, a crusading feminist and birth control advocate who opened the first birth control clinic in 1916 and who, “hidden from the world, was a member of Marston’s family.”

Marston married Elizabeth Holloway in 1915 and, while teaching at Tufts in 1925, met and fell in love with a student, Olive Byrne, daughter of Ethel Byrne who, coincidentally, was Sanger’s sister (and another feminist). Marston, Holloway and Byrne began attending an avant garde sexual “clinic” at the Boston apartment of Marston’s aunt, where they learned about “Love Units” formed by a Love Leader, a Mistress, and a Love Girl.

In 1926, Byrne, then 22, moved in with Marston and Holloway, and they lived as a threesome, “with love making for all” as Holloway put it. Four children were born of this array, two by Holloway and two by Byrne.

For Holloway, Lapore writes, the arrangement showed how women could combine marriage with careers. “Here’s how,” Lapore continues: “Marston would have two wives. Holloway could have her career. Byrne would raise the children. No one else need ever know.” The three assiduously kept their domestic arrangement a secret.

The two women were apparently not only friends but colleagues in feminist enterprises. After Marston’s death in 1947, “they lived together for the rest of their lives. In the fifties and sixties, they often stayed in Tucson, taking care of Sanger. Byrne worked as Sanger’s secretary.”

In 1937, the year the American Medical Association finally endorsed contraception, Marston, who was mostly unemployed through the decade (and even when employed, it was never for very long at any of the universities he taught at), held a press conference, Lapore reports, at which “he predicted that women would one day rule the world.” His prediction made headlines all across the country.

In 1940, M.C. Gaines, whose DC comics published Superman, Batman and a host of other colorfully costumed superheroes, read an article by Olive Byrne in Family Circle magazine, wherein Byrne reported that, contrary to some popular criticism of the day, Marston found comic book superheroes “pure wish fulfillment” of the most beneficial sort. Gaines soon hired Marston  as a consultant, and Marston convinced him of the need for a female superhero. Enter Wonder Woman.

Marston considered women to be mentally stronger than men but insisted that they’re happiest when they’re submissive. (There’s the reason Wonder Woman always gets tied up: Marston had a thing for bondage.) His comics showed her calling for her mortal sisters to fight off their male oppressors, but in his more scholarly publications, he may have taken credit for research conducted by his wife.

“Drawn by an artist named Harry G. Peter, who, in the nineteen-tens, had drawn suffrage cartoons, Wonder Woman looked like a pinup girl,” Lapore says. “She’s Eleanor Roosevelt; she’s Betty Grable. Mostly, she’s Margaret Sanger.”

And, possibly, Olive Byrne.

Saith Lapore: “In 1974, when a Ph.D student asked Holloway about Wonder Woman’s bracelets, Holloway replied: ‘A student of Dr. Marston’s wore on each wrist heavy, broad silver bracelets, one African and the other Mexican. They attracted his attention as symbols of love binding so that he adopted them for Wonder Woman.’ The bracelets were Olive Byrne’s. Olive Byrne had at that point been living with Holloway for 48 years.”

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