Review: The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore

December 11, 2014
The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore (Scribe, £20)

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“With the speed of Mercury and the strength of Hercules—she is known only as Wonder Woman, but who she is, or whence she came, nobody knows!”

But now we do. Harvard historian Jill Lepore has trawled through thousands of newspaper cuttings, diaries, medical records, university notes and FBI files to reveal the story behind the creation of the world’s most successful female superhero. She charts the parallels between the comic’s storyline and the life of its creator, William Moulton Marston (also known for inventing the lie detector). Marston was a committed suffragist and—despite the character’s provocative appearance, which Lepore deals with in some detail—Wonder Woman’s feminist credentials are clear: her only weakness is that she loses all her powers if her hands are bound together by a man. Marston considered her to be “psychological propaganda” for the women’s movement.

Lepore delves in-depth into Marston’s polyamorous relationship with the niece of Margaret Sanger, one of the most important women’s rights campaigners of the first half of the 20th century, who lived in secret as Marston’s mistress under the same roof as his wife (far from a perfect feminist arrangement, it might be noted). In a wonderfully vivid style, she leads us through the fascinating personal stories of Marston and those whose lives connected with his, including Sanger, her sister Ethel Byrne and radical niece Olive—taking us from a male-only Harvard; to the bohemian world of early 20th-century Greenwich Village, filled with feminists and free love advocates; to the rise of the “talkies” in 1920s Hollywood. Intertwining biography, history and fiction, this is about much more than a comic book character.