Friday 23 March 2018

Feminism and free love: the Irish inspiration for Wonder Woman

With footage from the new Wonder Woman film released this week Donal Lynch looks at the story behind the character

Actress Gal Gadot will star as Wonder Woman in a new movie Photo: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for Jaguar
Actress Gal Gadot will star as Wonder Woman in a new movie Photo: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for Jaguar
Lynda Carter from the 1970s TV show
Margaret Sanger, who epitomised the characters' heroic traits Photo: Getty Images/Photo Researchers RM

Superman had Clark Kent. Batman had Bruce Wayne. And Wonder Woman, as true comic book aficionados will tell you, had Princess Diana of Themyscira.

She is easily the most popular female comic character of all time and the subject of an iconic seventies TV series - starring former Olympic swimmer Lynda Carter. Now, after a number of false starts, she finally looks set to make her big-budget CGI-era debut in a forthcoming film which features Israeli model and actress Gal Gadot alongside Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill. After appearing as the undercard in Batman v Superman, which is set to open in March, Wonder Woman will then be given her own eponymous film, scheduled for release early next year.

It is rare for such a big movie to feature a female super hero in the title role, and perhaps for this reason the studio have cranked up the hype machine early. The footage leans heavily on her legacy as feminist and distinctively American cultural icon.

Unbeknownst to most American movie-goers, however, the real-life inspiration behind the original Wonder Woman was bound up with the story of an Irish family, and particularly one of its daughters. Her name was Margaret ('Maggie') Sanger and she grew up in an Italian- Irish ghetto in Corning, New York, in the late 19th century. Her parents, Anne and Michael, were both born in Cork. Michael had emigrated during famine times with his family first to Canada. As a young adult he left to fight in the American Civil War and eventually settled in New Jersey. There he met and married Anne and, as was usual for families of that period, she became a baby-making factory - 18 pregnancies in 22 years with 11 live births. The sixth of these was Maggie.

Growing up Maggie saw first-hand the dreadful impact that all of the pregnancies had on her mother's health - Anne Higgins died aged 49 - and it had a formative effect on her. Later Sanger would write: "From earliest childhood I associated poverty, toil, unemployment, drunkenness, cruelty, quarrelling, fighting, debts and jails with large families."

Maggie's older sisters somehow came up with the money to send her away to boarding school (she listed one of them as her guardian), but she left early, abandoning plans for medical school because of lack of funds, and instead became a teacher. After her mother died, she entered nursing school and refused to continue to run the family household, as was generally expected of Irish daughters in those years. During her training she met the architect William Sanger, an intellectual German-Jew, and married him two years later. They would have three children together.

In 1912 the couple moved to Greenwich Village, Manhattan, which at that time was a hotbed of radicalism and artistic freedom. Sanger became active for the Socialist party. The feminist movement was, by this time, gaining widespread currency in the US; in 1911, suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst was invited to speak at Harvard and news of her advent in America was carried in media across the country. Maggie was determined to become a leader in this movement. She started her own magazine, called The Woman Rebel, in which she was credited with coining the phrase "birth control" and wrote that "the right to be a mother regardless of Church or state" was the "basis of Feminism". In 1917 she starred in a silent movie called Birth Control, which was banned by the censor.

Inspired by Pankhurst, Maggie and her sister Ethel opened what was described as America's first family planning clinic, in Brooklyn. Interestingly, given the directions these clinics would take in subsequent generations, Sanger was vehemently against abortion - she called it a "horror" and said that the "hundreds of thousands of abortions" performed in America each year were "a disgrace to civilisation". Her solution to what she saw as an evil was to prevent pregnancies before they occurred. Sanger promised that contraception would "remake the world".

The next generation of the Higgins family would play their own part in that remaking, but not without some curious serendipity and a scandalous backstory. Ethel's daughter and Maggie's niece, Olive, attended Tufts university, where she met and fell in love with one of her lecturers, William Marston, a Harvard-educated lawyer, psychologist and inventor. He conducted research which he said demonstrated that women were, on average, more reliable and conscientious jurors than men - a controversial claim at that point, since during the 1920s women were still barred from serving on juries in more than half the American states.

In addition to his contributions to scientific and social progress, Marston was also a practitioner of free love. By the time he met Maggie Sanger's niece Olive, he was married to another woman, called Elizabeth Holloway. In 1926, when Olive was 22, Marston invited her to come to him and Holloway, and the three of them lived together in an arrangement, informed by a concept which Marston called "erotic equality". There would be "love-making for all" and Olive Byrne ended up being the mother of two of Marston's children. Scholars of the period have cited the arrangement as an example of the era's 'sex radicalism'.

In 1935, Olive conducted an interview with Marston for Family Circle Magazine - then as now one of the most highly-circulated periodicals in America. The profile is somewhat disingenuous - she pretends they're strangers throughout - but the piece is noteworthy because Marston mentions "the great educational potential in comic books". He felt that the worst offence of comics like Superman was their "bloodcurdling masculinity". The interview would later be read by MC Gaines, the publisher of Superman, who was concerned that the Man Of Steel looked a little fascist, which wouldn't do given the times they were in. She hired Marston as a consultant, and in December 1941, with World War II at its height, Wonder Woman made her debut. There were influences from Greek Myth and from the modern world. "She's Eleanor Roosevelt; she's Betty Grable", wrote Jill Lepore, author of The Secret History of Wonder Woman. "Mostly, she's Margaret Sanger."

Marston idolised Sanger - he had once listed her as one of the most influential people in America (just behind Henry Ford) but he borrowed heavily from his own life too. Throughout the comic books there were themes that preoccupied him, including depictions of bondage, dominance and submission and truth telling - Marston has been credited with inventing the lie-detector test, and its no coincidence that Wonder Woman had a truth-inducing lasso. The popularity and lore of the character grew with time. During the Second World War the character seemed emblematic of the involvement of American women in the war effort. "Get strong", she says in one strip. "Earn your own living and fight for your country." Post-war Wonder Woman ran for president and she was featured on the cover of Ms magazine looking distinctly presidential. Feminists of the time were divided on the impact of the character. Some lauded her as a much needed counter-balance to the almost uniformly male comic book heroes, while in some quarters she was seen an escapist distraction from the real struggles of women.

The success of the comic book did not enrich Marston. His academic career foundered in middle age and by the time of his death in 1947 he was out of work and living in relative poverty.

Extraordinarily, Maggie Sanger in her old age preferred to distance herself from the iconic character which had been based on her. She never mentioned Wonder Woman when writing about her life. It's been speculated that she may have been squeamish about some aspects of the comic strip, but it may be that she also felt that the fame of the character would eventually shine a light on the unconventional family life of her daughter and her son-in-law. Her own legacy would be debated; many deplored her opposition to abortion. She passed away in 1966, one year after the US Supreme Court finally legalised birth control. Her life's work was complete, even if the character she inspired would live to fight another day.

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