HomeCultureBooksBook Reviews

The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore

The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore

Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore has written an eye-opening account of one of the best known and perhaps least understood icons of comic-book culture. Where Superman has roots in science fiction and Batman in the hardboiled detective thriller, Wonder Woman draws on the fictional feminist utopia of Amazonian women who lived apart from men since the time of Ancient Greece – and on the struggle for women’s rights since the first half of the twentieth century.

A revisionist examination of the most popular female comic-book hero of all time...

Creator William Moulton Marston was deeply influenced by the suffragist movement, and was a freshman at Harvard when Emmeline Pankhurst was banned from speaking on campus in 1911 but spoke instead at a packed dance hall a block away from the university. His ideas were also shaped by the women he drew into his life; he married childhood friend Sadie Elizabeth Holloway, a spirited English tomboy. A decade into the marriage, as a psychology professor at Tufts, he fell in love with bright student Olive Byrne. Steeped in the sexual radicalism of the era, Marston, Holloway and Byrne agreed to form a nonconformist household based on ‘lovemaking for all’.

Whilst Marston and Byrne wrote a column together for Family Circle celebrating traditional family values, at home Byrne and Holloway each had two children by Marston. Internationally acclaimed as an expert on truth – he invented the lie detector test – Marston lived a life of secrets to which, Lepore engagingly reveals, there are many clues on the pages of the Wonder Woman comics.

Wonder Woman
Harry G. Peter, pen and ink drawing from Marston’s ‘Why 100,000 Americans Read Comics’, American Scholar 13, 1943–44. The Harvard College Library

Wonder Woman herself is a mass of contradictions: a slinky, kinky warrior princess who masks her identity in the guise of mild-mannered secretary Diana Prince. In full costume, the smartest, bravest and strongest woman the world has ever seen looks like a pin-up girl. Her magic lasso compels anyone she ropes in to tell the truth, but she loses all her superpowers when a man binds her in chains.

Although the Lynda Carter TV series of the 1970s was viewed as a sell-out of feminist values by radicals within the women’s movement, its visuals and storylines were based closely on Marston’s comics. Hollywood’s latest incarnation of Wonder Woman (teaming up with Superman and Batman in 2016, and starring in her own movie in 2017) will be the statuesque former Miss Israel, fashion model, army fitness instructor, motorbike enthusiast and mother Gal Gadot. Also the first non-American to play the role, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic she could be the right gal to bring Diana Prince and her alter ego firmly into the twenty-first century.

Read an extract: ‘Wonder Woman for President!’ on Bookanista
Buy the DVDs

Mark Reynolds is a freelance editor and writer, and a founding editor of Bookanista