Book Reviews

The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore

21855259[1]“A riveting work of historical detection revealing that the origin of one of the world’s most iconic superheroes hides within it a fascinating family story—and a crucial history of twentieth-century feminism

Wonder Woman, created in 1941, is the most popular female superhero of all time. Aside from Superman and Batman, no superhero has lasted as long or commanded so vast and wildly passionate a following. Like every other superhero, Wonder Woman has a secret identity. Unlike every other superhero, she has also has a secret history.

Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore has uncovered an astonishing trove of documents, including the never-before-seen private papers of William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman’s creator. Beginning in his undergraduate years at Harvard, Marston was influenced by early suffragists and feminists, starting with Emmeline Pankhurst, who was banned from speaking on campus in 1911, when Marston was a freshman. In the 1920s, Marston and his wife, Sadie Elizabeth Holloway, brought into their home Olive Byrne, the niece of Margaret Sanger, one of the most influential feminists of the twentieth century. The Marston family story is a tale of drama, intrigue, and irony. In the 1930s, Marston and Byrne wrote a regular column for Family Circle celebrating conventional family life, even as they themselves pursued lives of extraordinary nonconformity. Marston, internationally known as an expert on truth—he invented the lie detector test—lived a life of secrets, only to spill them on the pages of Wonder Woman.

The Secret History of Wonder Woman
is a tour de force of intellectual and cultural history. Wonder Woman, Lepore argues, is the missing link in the history of the struggle for women’s rights—a chain of events that begins with the women’s suffrage campaigns of the early 1900s and ends with the troubled place of feminism a century later.” ~Goodreads

Sooooo…I was a bit underwhelmed with this mammoth of a book. The Secret History of Wonder Woman (October 2014) tops out at 432 pages, about 100 of those being notes, sources, acknowledgements and the index. Also, add about 14 pages of an Epilogue. AND it was so heavy. Must have been all the photos and actual comic pages.

That was my favorite part of the book. The side by side photos of Marston and the various people in his life that inspired much of the WW storyline with the comic itself. Very cool!

But maybe I just hyped it up more in my head. You see, I’m a huge WW fan. Well, I was more so as a child. I watched every episode over and over and was just blown away by the only female superhero who fought for what was right. Marston clearly agreed,

“Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman, who I believe, should rule the world.”

The information Lepore weaved throughout his book was fascinating all centered around women’s rights and equality. Her creator William Moulton Marston was a staunch feminist and being surrounded by women like his wife, Elizabeth Holloway and live-in lover Olive Byrne, helped drive the force behind WW’s creation. Olive’s life was saved as a young girl by Margaret Sanger, who went on to establish what became Planned Parenthood. She dedicated her life to making birth control available, affordable and safe. Gloria Steinem also made an appearance in the book with her featuring WW on the cover of Ms. Magazine in 1972. And there are so many others. So you see, without these strong, educated and passionate women circling Marston, WW might not have been created. And I didn’t truly care for him. He read as a two-faced man. In one breath he was fighting for women’s rights and in the next he was preoccupied with bondage and submission. He had many secrets but yet invented the lie detector. Hmmm?

It’s not an easy read. They information is plentiful and many people come into their lives that it’s hard to keep all the names straight. Even when their children are involved, they can’t figure out how to properly name them because of their secret living arrangement. But give it a try and plan to read it with time on your side. It took me almost two weeks while I read another book for book club.

One of my favorite quotes from the book was by Mary Wooley who “was an American educator, peace activist and women’s suffrage supporter. She was the first female student to attend Brown University and served as the 11th President of Mount Holyoke College from 1900-1937.”

“Feminism is not a prejudice. It is a principle.”


One thought on “The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore

  1. I’ve been hearing similar things about this book from others, too. The topic sounds fascinating, so I’m sorry to hear that it was difficult to get through.

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