When Stephen Gaskin passed away last July, his local paper eulogized him as a “tie-dye-clad hippie philosopher, a proud ‘freethinker’” with “crystalline blue eyes.” Those of my generation who are familiar with Gaskin know him as the founder of the Farm, the 44-year-old intentional community in Summertown, Tennessee, where Gaskin’s wife, Ina May, started a movement of authentic midwifery and female body-empowerment. The Farm has 180 residents today—in the early 1970s, between 200 and 300 people traveled to Summertown in a caravan of painted school buses to create it—and maintains a focus on green community. Beyond its Ecovillage Training Center, the collective’s furthest-reaching project is a “woman-centered” approach to childbirth. Last year, a doula in Santa Cruz who runs the blog Yogini Momma posted a TEDx Talk by Ina May and praised her as midwifery’s “grandmother guru.”
I e-mailed the news of Gaskin’s death to a friend from college, a professional nurse-midwife. She replied, “When I was training at the Farm it was fascinating to see how everyone treated him with such deference.” Gaskin, the commune’s patriarch and source of “spiritual revelation,” had been in a flexible group marriage when both he and a partner began to be sexually involved with Ina May, who was still married to her first husband. Gaskin would later institutionalize monogamy on the Farm. “We think of Ina May as such a powerhouse, but really Stephen was the cult leader!” my friend noted. “When we would eat dinner he would always be served first.”
What to make of a man whose lessons as well as beliefs, it would seem, were unabashedly feminist, but who lived a life that clashed with them? This is the question posed by Jill Lepore’s invigorating and perplexing The Secret History of Wonder Woman. Lepore is a professor of American history at Harvard University and a New Yorker staff writer. In 2013, she published Book of Ages, an astonishing biography of Jane Franklin Mecom, Benjamin Franklin’s youngest sister, that wondered what might have happened if Jane had been given, well, a room of her own. Pitting a founding father against his sister—“If he meant to be Everyman, she is everyone else”—Lepore contrasts the treatment by history of someone inducted into the national memory versus someone very similar (but female) whom memory has spurned. The incongruities begin with scant documentation—Jane’s letters were discarded, whereas Ben’s were saved; her house was demolished to make room for a man’s memorial—and Lepore uses these facts to throw Jane, and her gender, into relief. Married at 15, a mother of 12, far less educated, far poorer, and with far fewer chances: These were the realities of Jane’s life. It is impossible to know whether her genius might ever have matched Ben’s. Retrieving that possibility, for posterity and for Jane, is Lepore’s task.
Her new book is about a more recent, and more richly documented, moment in American history. Wonder Woman may not have been the first female superhero—for example, Bulletgirl, the inamorata of Bulletman, appeared earlier, in May 1940—but when she burst onto the comics scene in 1941, Wonder Woman was a sovereign figure, and from an explicitly feminist milieu. Secret History is in part a character study of her secretive, impressive, and terribly odd creator, William Moulton Marston, who boasted: “Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who, I believe, should rule the world.” In Lepore’s telling, Marston had a Forrest Gump–like ability to insert himself into many of the intellectual and political dramas of his day, in psychology, criminology, film, and advertising. His story gets a full airing here, but Lepore’s chief interest, as it was with Sister Franklin, is to spot the twisty gender dynamics in the life of a male public figure, and to name the woman’s work—or, in Marston’s case, women’s work—concealed behind the man. Lepore sees in Wonder Woman a “missing link” between the struggles of different generations of American feminists, as well as a lesson about women belittled and denied by circumstances and by men. For the historian, Wonder Woman is a tinderbox. But Lepore picks it up and carefully examines the parts: the flint, the steel, the stuff of American feminism and its potentially explosive discontents.