Review: ‘The Secret History of Wonder Woman’ by Jill Lepore

Secret History of Wonder Woman - Book CoverOut of all the books I’ve read in the past 19 years, I never ventured over to comic books.

So it only makes sense that I would take a step in that direction with Jill Lepore’s “The Secret History of Wonder Woman.”

In the nonfiction book, Lepore explores the history of Wonder Woman’s creator (William Moulton Marston) and the history of the feminist movement, both of which were tied in to the creation of Wonder Woman herself.

As far as nonfiction books go, this was definitely one of the better ones. Granted, the only ones I’ve ever disliked were “Radioactive Boy Scout” and “Witch Hunt: Mysteries of the Salem Witch Trials.” Perhaps I need to read both of those again, but that’s another list I’ll have to tackle once I’ve finished this challenge.

With each chapter, it is clear Lepore did her research. And a lot of it. There are so many footnotes and illustrations — I’m not sure how she kept track of it all. Not only did she keep track of it all, she wove it into a narrative that kept me going to the next Kindle page even when I should’ve been sleeping. Plus, William Moulton Marston led a very interesting life.

Feminism made Wonder Woman. And then Wonder Woman remade feminism, which hasn’t been altogether good for feminism. Superheroes, who are supposed to be better than everyone else, are excellent at clobbering people; they’re lousy at fighting for equality.

— Loc 105, Kindle edition

After finishing this book, I still don’t know what to think about Marston. I’m not even sure where to begin with my thoughts, but I’ll do my best to summarize. Marston was a Harvard graduate and earned a law degree as well as a doctorate in psychology. He spent much of his time researching and creating a lie detector, which he tried multiple times to get funded by law enforcement agencies (he was on the FBI watch list) and even tried to use it in a trial, which established the Frye standard for those of you who study law.

There is also his personal life, which I still have trouble wrapping my head around. He married Sadie Elizabeth Holloway, who he had known since he was a teenager, and made her change her name to Betty Marston, which she (rightfully) objected to and lost. During World War I, he had an affair with Marjorie Wilkes Huntley for six months. When he returned home to Holloway, Huntley came with. Then, when he was teaching, he met Olive Byrne, niece of Margaret Sanger. Bryne came to live with Marston, Holloway and Huntley and eventually bore two of Marston’s four children. The living arrangements were kept secret for many years; Byrne’s children weren’t aware that Marston was their biological father until their 20s. It’s a complicated, secretive past.

Lepore wove the feminist movement with the narratives about Marston really well. I remember learning a little about the movement in my government class in high school but it wasn’t discussed at length. The big hitter Lepore talked about was Margaret Sanger, who was Olive Byrne’s aunt. For decades, this connection was well hidden.

Both of these elements — Marston’s life and the feminist movement — tied in to the creation of Wonder Woman. Put simply, the Wonder Woman’s comics were a combination of feminist teachings and Marston’s philosophy. Lepore talked about the challenges surrounding the Wonder Woman comics, whether it was being censored over violence and bondage or other psychologists denouncing comics in general. Wonder Woman did have a female writer, who worked under Marston for a time before quitting to focus on her marriage. After Marston contracted polio and died of cancer, Wonder Woman’s strength disappeared. No women were selected to write or edit the comics.

There were many moments throughout the book where I found myself frustrated — not with the writing but with some of the events Lepore included. Going back over some of the highlighted sections and notes I left in my Kindle, there are a lot of “uggghs.” There’s even a “hypocrite” directed at Marston.

With a Wonder Woman movie in production starring Gal Gadot, this was a great book to read. If you don’t have time to read the book yourself, The New Yorker has a pretty good article (written by Lepore) that summarizes everything nicely.


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