The Free-Love Experiment That Created Wonder Woman

The polyamorous "sex cult" conceived by the comics' founder wasn't exactly feminist, but it was built on women-empowering, pro-queer ideals.

Is Wonder Woman feminist? Yes, the Amazon princess is often seen as an icon of female empowerment and heroism. But she also wears that swimsuit … and in the original comics from the ‘40s, more than a quarter of the panels included images of bondage, as Tim Hanley documents in Wonder Woman Unbound. How committed can a work of art be to feminist liberation when women (and it is overwhelmingly women) are shown being tied up on every page?

Jill Lepore's just-released The Secret History of Wonder Woman doesn't directly address this question. It's focused on the history of Wonder Woman's creator, psychologist William Marston, and his family, rather than on the comics per se, and it's more interested in biographical narrative than in thinking about feminism. But it's also the most extensive account ever written of Marston and his milieu, using archival sources that no one else has had access to. As such, it provides a lot of new information about where Wonder Woman came from, and what that means for her feminism, or lack thereof.

Not all of Lepore's account is a surprise. Marston's racism, for example, should be evident to anyone who has read his comics—though the discussion of his attitudes towards black defendants during his lie-detector work (he invented the device) is especially painful. Similarly, the biggest secret in Wonder Woman's history has been common knowledge for some time; Marston was a polyamorist, who had children both by his wife, Elizabeth Holloway, and by his live-in lover and former graduate student, Olive Byrne. Many of the details of this relationship, though, are new, and riveting.

Lepore reports, for instance, that the Marstons had a polyamorous relationship with another woman, Marjorie W. Huntley, before they met Byrne, and that she remained an on-and-off member of the family long after Byrne arrived, helping out with the inking and lettering of the Wonder Woman comics in the 1940s, and occasionally staying with Holloway and Byrne after Marston's death. Further, Huntley, Byrne, Holloway, and Marston all participated in what Lepore describes as a "sex cult" in 1925-26 at the home of Marston's aunt Carolyn.  Participants celebrated female sexual power, dominance, submission and love by forming “Love Units” consisting of multiple partners, including Love Girls who "do not … practice … concealment of the love organs" (translated from New Age, that means they didn't wear clothes.) Among the topics of discussion at these meetings was the work of Olive Byrne's aunt, Margaret Sanger—and one of Lepore's central accomplishments is to show just how close Byrne and Sanger were, and to describe how Wonder Woman sprang from an intellectual milieu that included both New Age free love and a radical commitment to reproductive rights.

As Lepore says, Wonder Woman was born out of "feminist utopia" and "the struggle for women's rights." But Marston's vision of feminist utopia—complete with love leaders, dominance, and bondage—doesn't necessarily look like the feminist utopia most people imagine today. Marston—and Sanger too, according to Lepore—believed that women were purer and better than men. That's a view that sits very uncomfortably with the current feminist movement, which often (and with justice) sees discussions of feminine purity as an excuse to restrict what women are allowed to do. Feminist success, in our day, is generally seen in terms of empowering women to achieve equality with men—not in terms of a naturally superior femaleness, the purity of which will transform society spiritually and ethically.

Marston's personal life also raises questions about his feminist commitments. In the first place, he met Byrne when she was his graduate student; it's not entirely clear if he started sleeping with her while she was under his supervision, but if he did, that certainly raises ethical questions. The way he introduced Byrne into his marriage is also disturbing; according to Lepore's archival research, Marston told his wife that she could either accept Byrne into their marriage, or Marston would leave. "Holloway was devastated," Lepore writes. "She walked out the door and walked, without stopping, for six hours."

The long-term household arrangement can also seem incongruous with feminism. Lepore glancingly compares the Marston's living arrangements to a "harem," and points out that Holloway was the one whose job as an editor supported the family while Marston flailed about from one hapless scheme to another. "The year … Marston held a press conference about Amazonian rule, Olive Byrne was typing his books and raising his children, and Sadie Elizabeth Holloway was supporting him." She concludes ironically, "A matriarchy Cherry Orchard [the Marston home] was not." Katha Politt echoes that sentiment in her review for The Atlantic print magazine, writing that "Marston had a sweet thing going: two remarkably smart, adoring women to cater to his every need, each apparently believing she’d landed in feminist heaven."

It's certainly true that the Marston family wasn't the kind of companionate, egalitarian, partnership marriage that we tend to think of now as ideal. But having a woman be the breadwinner in the family wasn't exactly opposed to Marston's ideals either. Lepore notes that Holloway eventually agreed to the arrangement with Byrne because she wanted to have children and keep her career. Byrne, for her part, wanted very much to raise children.

Moreover, Lepore points out that Holloway was obsessed with the writing of Sappho while she was in college, and died with a copy of the poet's work by her bedside. Lepore also cites correspondence indicating that Holloway was quite committed to free love experimentation—and she and Byrne lived together after Marston's death for 40 years, at least sometimes sleeping in the same room, as Politt says. Lepore doesn't directly address the question of whether Byrne and Holloway were lovers. But there seems to be every reason to think they were, and that, whatever the initial impetus, the polyamorous relationship was not organized or maintained because Marston, and Marston alone, wanted multiple partners.

Byrne didn't tell her own children that Marston was their father (she claimed to have been married to another man who died). Lepore tends to present the secrecy around the relationship as undermining feminist ideals in some ways—as a "distortion not only of Wonder Woman but also of the course of women's history and the struggle for equal rights." What Lepore means here is that the silence around Byrne's place in Marston's family has obscured the links between Wonder Woman's creation and Margaret Sanger. That's no doubt true. But the secrecy is also a manifestation of the long, painful place of the closet in queer history, and as one indication that, long before third wave feminism, the feminist movement and the gay rights movement were intertwined.

Wonder Woman was an empowered superhero who Gloria Steinem could embrace, but she was based in part on ideas about women's purity and feminine power that Steinem would have found (and in her writing on Wonder Woman actually did find) quite uncomfortable. The Marston family could be seen from one perspective as a patriarchal harem enforcing traditional gender roles—but that arrangement allowed Holloway to have a very untraditional career, and seems to have provided the basis for a 40-year lesbian companionship long before the marriage equality movement. So was Wonder Woman feminist? Lepore's book makes the case that she was, absolutely—as long as we recognize that feminism isn't a single ideology, but is a range of sometimes contradictory, sometimes complementary ideals and dreams.