Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

Ok everyone, as promised, I did finally get to see Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, a 2017 film, and I am going to review it for you. This also implies a bit of a review of Jill Lepore’s book The Secret History of Wonder Woman (2015). No spoiler tag here as it’s real life and there’s nothing particularly spoiler-y in the film. So just stop reading here if you don’t want to know more.

As I’ve talked about on this blog before, the creator of the comic book character Wonder Woman was named William Moulton Marston and had one legal wife (Elizabeth Holloway), one other woman who lived with them all the time (Olive Byrne, niece of Margaret Sanger), and a third woman who lived with them sometimes (Marjorie Wilkes Huntley). Holloway and Byrne each had two children with Marston. They all lived together. Elizabeth and Olive lived together for decades after Marston’s death.

Here is the very abridged version of how, according to Lepore, the three adults of the main family unit came to live together, which for a while seemed to be the dominant quotation from Lepore, floating about.

Marston had given Holloway a choice. Either Olive Byrne could live with them, or he would leave her. [….] Holloway was devastated. She walked out the door and walked, without stopping, for six hours, thinking.6 [….] Elizabeth Halloway Marston, a New Woman living in a New Age, made a deal with her husband. Marston could have his mistress. Holloway could have her career. And young Olive Byrne, trained in the science of psychology, would raise the children.24 (p. 118-123).

A quick glance around the internet shows that this quotation isn’t so dominant right now, which I’m glad of because I’ve always been a bit suspicious of the story. See those superscript numbers? Those are footnotes, and they explain that the source for this information is Margaret Sanger Marston Lampe – granddaughter of Margaret Sanger and wife of one of Marston’s kids who went sleuthing and uncovered the family secret decades after these supposed events took place. I’m not saying for sure she’s wrong, but I am saying that if it sounds a bit like an origin myth, there’s a reason for that.

There are things I like and things I don’t like about Lepore’s book. It’s certainly the most complete story we have. It tells of the family’s involvement in a cult of female sexual power, which is fascinating but not too fantastical (such groups were not unheard of in this time or even earlier in US history, and indeed had some connections with polyamory). It unpacks the feminism and gender roles of the time, and the division of labor within the household. It chronicles the patchy employment path Marston had, and the ways in which Holloway and Byrne earned much of the money for the household. I also like the attention paid to Huntley as a member of the family, who is often not mentioned in most reports. It’s complex, and I appreciate that.

On the other hand, Lepore doesn’t consistently respect her sources. While she takes this interview with Lampe at face value, she also blatantly balks at Holloway’s version of the events as to why Harvard didn’t grant her a Ph.D. (“Holloway was either lying or misremembering”, p. 59). The tone of her book is ambiguous. Sometimes she favors the unconventional family arrangement and other times not so much. In general, she paints a portrait of it that is perhaps harsher than it needs to be. And yet, I appreciate that she doesn’t cut Marston any slack as he seems to have had a habit of hitting on his students and that’s an abuse of power, so I’m reluctant to see him as all good.

The film by Angela Robinson, on the other hand, might tell a bit too rosy of a story. Specifically, Robinson picks up on the love implied to be between Holloway and Byrne (they kept living together, and some sources suggest they were in fact sexually and romantically involved while others deny it), and the film is really more of a movie about their relationship which Marston mostly happens to be in (except a really contrived part where he has to bring them together because they love each other and he wants to make sure they have each other even if they don’t have him). There’s a lot to like about this approach and interpretation. The women might still have been more open about their relationship with a man than their relationship with each other, and this story might be erased and need more attention. But it downplays Marston’s potential exploitation (again, that Lepore might have in contrast overplayed), and it downplays the division of labor mentioned above. Sure, Holloway is seen working and Byrne meets her at the door and takes her coat in a Normal Rockwell-esque scene. Holloway’s “deal” (one wife at work, one wife at home) is cut, which I’m glad of because of the reasons mentioned above why I find it problematic, but sad of because it glosses over an important economic reality. Not only did Holloway work outside the home, but Byrne wrote a Family Circle column from within it (in which she interviewed Marston as though they didn’t live together). I don’t think we see any of this detail in the film.

On the other hand, the film has a nice scene early on with Holloway ranting about Harvard’s lack of respect for her, and debating on the merits of Radcliffe versus Harvard. This nuanced conversation which is otherwise irrelevant suggests to me that I’m not the only one who was annoyed by Lepore’s treatment of this topic!

There are several notable absences. Huntley isn’t in the film, which is a bummer but I understand it makes it a very complex story. The cult of female sexual power isn’t in the film either (although there is a bondage club, briefly, but it’s not at all the same thing). There could be more Wonder Woman, honestly.

Of course, it’s a film and it can’t do everything. However, I would have rather had a film about these things than some of the drama we did get in the film, which I saw as contrived simply to follow the narrative rules of a romance. A lot of attention is paid to an early boyfriend of Olive’s. He has some good one-liners, but it’s not as interesting as everyone meeting at Marston’s aunt’s house to talk about how women should rule the world and have lots of  sex. The neighbors find out and the family kind of splits for a while, which I’m pretty sure didn’t happen and isn’t as interesting as simply presenting the layers of lies told about the family even within the family (to Olive’s children who thought their father, named William K. Richard, was dead — at least according to Lepore). Obviously they reconcile and we end on a nice note about Wonder Woman, but some deeper exploration of gender politics and the Comics Code would have been more welcome in my opinion.

And yet, I would still recommend watching this film. It’s a sweet poly love story and period piece. Maybe Lepore’s version is too sour and Robinson’s is too sweet, and the truth is surely somewhere in between. And I’m still uncomfortable for the fact that this is all family secrets that some family members didn’t want this talked about, but here I am talking about it anyway.

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