Our group decided to go with a non-fiction book for January, and boy did we pick something unexpected. Libby, Steph and I nominated three books and then had our new facebook group vote on which to read. The group chose The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore. What a doozy!
Shifting from easy fiction to a book like this was a bit of a jolt for me and it look a little while to get my brain back in the academic game. My first issue with this book is that the title and cover are misleading. Aside from little sneak peeks, illustrations, and clips from comic strips, the creation of Wonder Woman does not happen until almost page 200!
The book is, actually, a detailed biography of WW creator William Moulton Marston, starting his first year in undergrad at Harvard. There are many interesting parts to the book, most of which do not concern Marston himself. His wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston was an amazing go-getter, especially for the 1920s and 30s. She earned as many degrees as she could, matching her husband one-for-one. She was actually the breadwinner for most of their relationship, which is really saying something considering the family was made of 8 (and a half) people, when one adds live-in mistress Olive Byrne, four children (two from each lover) and a sometime-roommate (and probable lover) who at times lived in the attic.
Olive Byrne was Margaret Sanger’s niece so there was a nice deviation off of the main story about the advent of the birth control movement. Sanger’s sister (Olive’s mother) was Ethel Byrne who was arrested in 1917 for talking about the fact that pregnancy could be prevented, and whose hunger strike in prison brought the nation’s eyes to this topic. I love that Jill Lepore included prints of the newspapers distributed by birth control advocates and feminists back in the 19-teens. I was also saddened that we are often rehashing the same arguments 100 years later. “In the end, the judge ruled that no woman has ‘the right to copulate with a feeling of security that there will be no resulting conception’: if a woman isn’t willing to die in childbirth, she shouldn’t have sex.” Yes, I see this argument in facebook arguments daily.
Changing the topic, I have this minor fascination with the turn of the century and some of the kooky stuff that happened pre-Great Depression. People had so many ideas then. I feel that rich white people were always up to something strange. Global exploration, countless inventions, the birth of Psychology as a science (which was explored a bit in this book), the beginnings of science fiction (Verne, Wells), and even political explorations, like Russia’s communist revolution! My work campus sits on the former site of a utopian cult so I have been down that rabbit hole many times. The past is often sanitized, so the idea of free love experimentation before the 1960s really surprised me, but at the same time, totally made sense. What I really didn’t get was—what did these women see in Marston? Was it simply the desire to be different? In my eyes he was an entitled, semi-successful psychologist who routinely borrowed his women’s ideas and passed them off as his own, usually blatantly denying them credit. Not much going for him, but he certainly was different from men of the day.
There is a lot to get into with this book, but writing about it one-sided is not doing the topic justice. Our virtual book club had an online discussion group last night and I very thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m glad that others had the same reactions as I did to aspects like, what did all these women see in Marston? What is he bringing to the table here?
The Free-Love Experiment That Created Wonder Woman, Noah Berlatsy, The Atlantic
The Surprising Origin Story of Wonder Woman, Jill Lepore, Smithsonian Magazine
As always leave your comments below or link me to your review if you’ve already posted it on Goodreads or Amazon. I would love to read your take.
A reminder that we started a facebook group for the book club if you would rather discuss our monthly reads over there instead of in the comment section here. Message me on facebook to be added.
For February, our group fittingly picked a light rom-com by queen of the genre Nora Ephron (When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, etc). Heartburn promises to be less cumbersome than January’s book, so please join along with Libby, Steph, and the rest of our group as we read together.