Review: The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore

I acquired my love of Wonder Woman as an ’80s kid, through reruns of the TV series with Lynda Carter. She was a badass, she was pretty AND she didn’t wear pink. Of course I loved her, and had the lunchbox & pajamas to prove it. Despite that, I never really read the comics too much. I’ve read a few here and there, but as of yet, haven’t gone through any significant number or a writer’s full run. This is a thing I finally want to rectify, I think, partly sparked by reading this book and perhaps as a natural development in my full-blown comic nerdery. Anyway, I got a copy of The Secret History Of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore for Christmas and finally read it. It is a thoroughly fascinating read.

FullSizeRenderBy now, it’s not exactly a secret that the creator of Wonder Woman was William Moulton Marston, a Harvard-trained psychologist who invented the first lie detector test, but it’s probably still a little-known fact. Lepore begins the story with the beginning of Marston himself, who found his feminism early, in his first year at Harvard. His family life intertwines with several women, including famed feminist Margaret Sanger and her sister Ethel Byrne. All of their work, the work for women’s freedom and equality made its way pretty blatantly into Wonder Woman, as did his lie detector test. Lepore traces the lives of Marston and his wives, Elizabeth Holloway and Olive Byrne, weaving in how each period in their lives influenced parts of the Wonder Woman story, from the college setting to characters and situations. Snippets and panels of the early comics are peppered throughout, much to my delight. Reading them today, most of them are so heavy-handed and on the nose they elicit laughter and groans, but putting them in context of the early 1940s makes them remarkable things.

The book is a great look at the beginnings of comics, and the entertainment industry as a whole, too. Marston was hired as an advisor for movies and comics, with dual purposes of figuring out how to appeal to specific emotions and elicit favorable reactions while not doing psychological damage to the public. In the early days of so many new ways to tell stories for both children and adults, much attention was paid to whether or not it would be somehow harmful to impressionable minds. Getting Wonder Woman to publication was no small feat (and just 3 years after Superman!), but despite the comic’s success among readers, there were still plenty of men trying to keep the lady down. When she finally made it into the Justice League, written by Gardner Fox, he makes her the fucking secretary. Marston — along with tons of readers — was livid. He never stopped writing and fighting for Wonder Woman as feminist propaganda. Throughout the book, Lepore explores the changing relationship of Wonder Woman and the feminist movement as it evolves from the first to the second wave. That and the lives of Marston & the women around him are the common threads woven throughout the book, and there are many threads, many side trips the author takes, but none are pointless and the story never gets convoluted. With so much information to present, this is no small feat, but Lepore makes it seem effortless, giving the reader a book that flows naturally from one chapter to the next, following a loose chronological structure, but showing how each thread weaves its way onto the pages of Wonder Woman down the road. At the end, yes, the reader knows the secret history of Wonder Woman, but has also been happily tricked into learning a good bit of history and biography, as well.


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