A review of The Secret History of Wonder Woman
By Jill Lepore
Ever since childhood, I’ve always been fascinated by superheroes. Seeing strong members of society stand up and fight for equity and justice resonates with me on a spiritual level. While with superheroes this happens with fictional characters in a fictional universe, human helping humans is something that I hope every person can get behind, especially considering the great need for it in today’s society.
A dear friend of mine who is more bookish than I am (who knew that was even possible?!) recommended this book highly for anyone who is excited about the new Wonder Woman movie, especially if they wanted a way to connect with the character and her history while waiting for the film release. Now I’m not one to take her book recommendations lightly, so my first course of action was to see if my local library carried the book and had it currently available. Within a few days, the book was in my hands, I was 50+ pages in, and I was transported into an era of suffragettes, feminists, and the fight for women’s reproductive rights.
This book was nothing like what I expected it to be. My expectation of hearing about Wonder Woman’s fictional amazonian history was way off base; this book is more about the secret history regarding the birth of Wonder Woman in William Moulton Marston’s mind, and the women in his life who inspired it all.
Lepore’s Secret History of Wonder Woman is a well-researched, well-written history of Marston’s education and family life. It begins in 1911 when Marston and Sadie Elizabeth Holloway, his partner, were freshmen in college. While at Harvard, Marston was influenced by many early feminists; this includes notable women such as Emmeline Pankhurst (who was banned from speaking at Harvard due to her progressive political stance on women’s educational and voting rights) and Margaret Sanger (who was a champion for women’s reproductive rights in the mid 1910s–you probably know her as the founder of an organization we now call Planned Parenthood). In the 1920s, Marston (now a psychologist) met a young woman named Olive Byrne, who happened to be the niece of Margaret Sanger. He and Byrne fell in love, and Byrne moved in with him and Holloway to form a larger, loving, unconventional family. Marston, over the years, struggled to find his place in academia and maintain a steady income, so Holloway became the breadwinner of the household; Byrne assisted Marston in his psychological experiments and kept the home that they all shared. Marston, Holloway, and Byrne went on to have four children collectively, and all were raised as siblings in one happy family. Eventually, after many years of struggling with his career, Marston saw the birth of comic books; he watched male heroes such as Superman and Batman borne into colorful pages in which women were depicted as fragile, emotional, and helpless. Marston, who believed that someday women will rule the world, chose to create a strong female character who was fiercely independent; he created Wonder Woman. From the get go, Wonder Woman was a symbol for beauty, wisdom, and strength in women everywhere. This historical narrative follows the battle Marston underwent to maintain Wonder Woman’s character in a society that was not yet accepting of such a strong female lead. As we travel through the pages of this book, we get to know the strength and grace of the women in Marston’s life who are forever remembered in the character of Wonder Woman–the world’s most popular female superhero of all time.
This story takes a lot of twists and turns and can be rather difficult to follow at certain times, but each tangent itself is gracefully woven into the main storyline. There is certainly no lack of detail in this book, which just adds to the interest of the story. Lepore presents historical papers, letters, photos, and information never before seen by the eyes of the public. If you’re not careful, Lepore’s depiction of Marston’s family and Wonder Woman’s struggle to maintain her character may give you a greater appreciation for the Wonder Woman comics–even her skimpy outfit! Originally, I was not a fan over her being scantily clad due to the modern problem of over-sexualization of female characters; as it turns out, her small outfit was a form of female empowerment in the 1900s when women were expected to wear full-coverage clothing.
My recommendations: Read. This. Book. Just do it (like Nike). This story would be appreciated and adored by comic book lovers and feminists alike. It’s chock-full of little details and major themes that guided the direction of Wonder Woman’s history, looks, clothing, personality, powers, and phrases that any comic book reader would enjoy. Similarly, it’s also full of feminist history, female power, and real people who shaped women’s rights as they are today. You, like me, may walk away with so much more than you ever bargained for, including messages of equality, feminism, inspiration, and (most importantly) hope.