We’re all pretty much in agreement that racism is bad, yes? Even most casual racists will usually accede this point, right before clarifying how their racism isn’t actually racism. Or something.

But what, then, to do with the people who say bigoted things (be they related to race, gender, or whatever)? The easiest path would be to simply ostracize them, mock them, or otherwise diminish their roles in society. And this gets done all the time! (Ask Twitter.) And sometimes those (publicly, at least) repent of their ways and pledge to do better in the future, and life goes on.

And sometimes those people are dead. Woodrow Wilson is in the news again, because his name adorns the Princeton School of Public Policy and International Affairs. Wilson — the 28th president, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and a president of Princeton University — was also unequivocally, unquestionably racist. Because of this fact, Princeton students have demanded 1 that Wilson’s name be taken off all programs and buildings.

Again, the easy path is simply to take his name off the building. But how do you erase a president from history? For that matter, how do you justify removing the name of the man who dreamed up the League of Nations (the forerunner to the United Nations) off of a school of international affairs? A man that won what is considered the biggest prize in human history (the Nobel Peace Prize) because of his work in international affairs?

To wit: how do you separate the man from his work?

[book]

I just finished The Secret History of Wonder Woman, a book more accurately titled The Secret History of the Creator of Wonder Woman, that dovetails quite nicely with this debate. William Marston was a failed psychologist/moviemaker/entreprenuer/inventor who created Wonder Woman.

The early comics (authored by him, before his death in 1947, were chock-full of progressive feminist ideals: WW solved problems by herself (never waiting for Batman or Superman to save the day); She actively refused marriage to her boyfriend; Her female friend, Etta Candy, on several occasions helps WW subdue her male foes. The feminist ideal manifested itself in more obvious ways, too: WW shows a young boy the important role of women in history, WW helped the namesake of her alter ego out of an abusive relationship, and the earlier comics even included an insert printing of “Wonder Women of History,” a four-page adventure chronicling the lives of women such as Florence Nightingale, Susan B. Anthony and Helen Keller.

Sounds like a pretty cut-and-dried case of progressive values that deserve to be lauded. Of course, I wouldn’t have included it as an example without a very large “but.”

Marston married his wife, Elizabeth Marston, in 1915. He had an on-again, off-again relationship with Marjorie W. Huntley that his wife knew about — and lived permanently (along with Elizabeth and, infrequently, Huntley) with Olive Byrne, whom he presented with golden bracelets as an “anniversary gift”. 2 Byrne’s role in the triad was to raise the children — eventually, two of her own and two by Elizabeth.

There’s nothing inherently wrong or bad about their living arrangement, of course — peoples’ private lives are their own. But one is forced to at least ponder the impulses for creating WW by a man who publicly claimed — in 1942, no less — that women would rule the world after a literal battle of the sexes … as he was financially supported by one wife and had a second at home who was tasked with taking care of the children. It’s entirely possibile that Byrne desired this life and had no problem with it. It’s also possible that it’s the only arrangement Elizabeth would agree to. 3

Then there are the many, many instances of bondage WW undergoes, undergirded by Marston’s belief that women were naturally more submissive than men. But it was OK, because men could learn submission from women, who would rule over them with their sexiness:

The only hope for peace is to teach people who are full of pep and unbound force to enjoy being bound … Only when the control of self by others is more pleasant than the unbound assertion of self in human relationships can we hope for a stable, peaceful human society.

So was Marston a feminist? Or was he a sex-craved submissive longing for a dom? In either case, how does that change Wonder Woman?

The answer, of course, is that it doesn’t. Authorial intent is absolutely important for discovering the reasons why something is written and for discerning its influences, but ultimately the work itself is judged by the individual reader. It absoutely can make a difference in how the work is read (in that an individual will bring their own prejudices and biases just as they do in every instance of human reason), but only as much as the reader wants it to.

Cultures and mores change. The esteem historical figures are held in wax and wane when they’re looked at with eyes that have seen the impact of past ignorance. Some, like Christopher Columbus, are doomed to be relegated to the bigot wing of history because their accomplishments (finding a continent the vikings discovered hundreds of years earlier) are overshadowed by the way they accomplished them (indiscriminate slaughter and enslavement of indigenous people). Others, such as Abraham Lincoln, get their mostly exemplary record (freed the slaves!) marred by simply being of a certain time period (“… I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.”) and adopting a progressive stance (for the time), but still not getting all the way there.

That’s a good thing.

Historical figures and events are never as black and white as they’re presented in history classes. Shades of gray exist everywhere, just as they do in your everyday life. We present them simplistically for a variety of reasons, 4 but nobody’s perfect.

So what do we do with Wilson? It’s never wrong to have a debate, to illuminate the issues of the past and the present. As to whether the name gets removed … meh? Honestly, if the students are the ones who have to use it and they care so much, why not change it?

Buildings will ultimately crumble, insitutions ultimately fail and time marches inexorably along. The best we can do is respect the past while always remembering that the needs of the present outweigh those of the dead. Events happen, with real consequences that need to be considered. But, ultimately, people are rarely all good or all bad. They are, after all, people.


  1. I won’t comment on the chosen methodology for change, because I’m not in the students’ shoes. I can be persuaded equally to the pragmatic side and the emotional side in most cases, though I’d probably swing for pragmatism in this case given the elapsed time

  2. The bracelets are the inspiration for WW’s, and are thought to have symbolized their private “marriage.”

  3. Marston introduced the idea of Byrne living with them to Elizabeth as “Byrne’s living here or I’m leaving”

  4. Up to and including lack of knowledge about the surrounding circumstances due to chronological distance, coupled with the fact that few people like recording the deficiencies of theirs and their heroes.