A riveting work of historical detection revealing that the origin of Wonder Woman, one of the world’s most iconic superheroes, hides within it a fascinating family story—and a crucial history of twentieth-century feminism
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.
This edition includes a new afterword with fresh revelations based on never before seen letters and photographs from the Marston family’s papers.
Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard University and a staff writer at The New Yorker. Her Book of Ages was a finalist for the National Book Award. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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The Splash Page
Wonder Woman is the most popular female comic-book superhero of all time. Aside from Superman and Batman, no other comic-book character has lasted as long. Like every other superhero, Wonder Woman has a secret identity. Unlike every other superhero, she also has a secret history.
Superman first bounded over tall buildings in 1938. Batman began lurking in the shadows in 1939. Wonder Woman landed in her invisible plane in 1941. She was an Amazon from an island of women who had lived apart from men since the time of ancient Greece. She came to the United States to fight for peace, justice, and women’s rights. She had golden bracelets; she could stop bullets. She had a magic lasso; anyone she roped had to tell the truth. To hide her identity, she disguised herself as a secretary named Diana Prince; she worked for U.S. military intelligence. Her gods were female, and so were her curses. “Great Hera!” she cried. “Suffering Sappho!” she swore. She was meant to be the strongest, smartest, bravest woman the world had ever seen. She looked like a pin-up girl. In 1942, she was recruited to the Justice Society of America, joining Superman, Batman, the Flash, and Green Lantern; she was the only woman. She wore a golden tiara, a red bustier, blue underpants, and knee-high, red leather boots. She was a little slinky; she was very kinky.
Over seven decades, across continents and oceans, Wonder Woman has never been out of print. Her fans number in the millions. Generations of girls have carried their sandwiches to school in Wonder Woman lunch boxes. But not even Wonder Woman’s most ardent followers know the true story of her origins. She’s as secret as a heart.
In an episode from 1944, a newspaper editor named Brown, desperate to discover Wonder Woman’s secret past, assigns a team of reporters to chase her down. She easily escapes them, outrunning their car in her high-heeled boots, leaping like an antelope. Brown, gone half mad, suffers a breakdown and is committed to a hospital. Wonder Woman, taking pity on him, puts on a nurse’s uniform and brings him a scroll. “This parchment seems to be the history of that girl you call ‘Wonder Woman’!” she tells him. “A strange, veiled woman left it with me.” Brown leaps out of bed and, not stopping to change out of his hospital johnny, races back to the city desk, where he cries out, parchment in hand, “Stop the presses! I’ve got the history of Wonder Woman!”
Brown’s nuts; he hasn’t really got the history of Wonder Woman. All he’s got is her Amazonian legend.
This book has got something else. The Secret History of Wonder Woman is the result of years of research in dozens of libraries, archives, and collections, including the private papers of Wonder Woman’s creator, William Moulton Marston—papers that have never been seen by anyone outside of Marston’s family. I read the published material first: newspapers and magazines, trade journals and scientific papers, comic strips and comic books. Then I went to the archives. I didn’t find anything written on parchment; I found something better: thousands of pages of documents, manuscripts and typescripts, photographs and drawings, letters and postcards, criminal court records, notes scribbled in the margins of books, legal briefs, medical records, unpublished memoirs, story drafts, sketches, student transcripts, birth certificates, adoption papers, military records, family albums, scrapbooks, lecture notes, FBI files, movie scripts, the carefully typed meeting minutes of a sex cult, and tiny diaries written in secret code. Stop the presses. I’ve got the history of Wonder Woman.
Wonder Woman isn’t only an Amazonian princess with badass boots. She’s the missing link in a chain of events that begins with the woman suffrage campaigns of the 1910s and ends with the troubled place of feminism fully a century later. 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.
But Wonder Woman is no ordinary comic-book superhero. The secrets this book reveals and the story it tells place Wonder Woman not only within the history of comic books and superheroes but also at the very center of the histories of science, law, and politics. Super- man owes a debt to science fiction, Batman to the hard-boiled detective. Wonder Woman’s debt is to the fictional feminist utopia and to the struggle for women’s rights. Her origins lie in William Moulton Marston’s past, and in the lives of the women he loved; they created Wonder Woman, too. Wonder Woman is no ordinary comic-book character because Marston was no ordinary man and his family was no ordinary family. Marston was a polymath. He was an expert in deception: he invented the lie detector test. He led a secret life: he had four children by two women; they lived together under one roof. They were masters of the art of concealment.
Their favorite hiding place was the comics they produced. Marston was a scholar, a professor, and a scientist; Wonder Woman began on a college campus, in a lecture hall, and in a laboratory. Marston was a lawyer and a filmmaker; Wonder Woman began in a courthouse and a movie theater. The women Marston loved were suffragists, feminists, and birth control advocates. Wonder Woman began in a protest march, a bedroom, and a birth control clinic. The red bustier isn’t the half of it. Unknown to the world, Margaret Sanger, one of the most influential feminists of the twentieth century, was part of Marston’s family.
Wonder Woman has been fighting for women’s rights for a very long time, battles hard fought but never won. This is the story of her origins—the stuff of wonders, and of lies.
When I was six, I wrote a short story called "James the Dog," in
pencil, on blue-lined white notebook paper. I still have it.
Suffice to say: the character arc is slightly flat.
When and where do you write? What does your
workspace look like?
I write anywhere. So long as there's an armchair. And best if
there are two armchairs: one for me, one for my dog. His name
is Noah Webster. Like the dictionary. No one messes with
Who are your favorite heroines of literature? Of
Heroines? Hmm. My genealogy of heroines has a kind of
Everygirl quality: you go from Ramona the Pest to Harriet the
Spy to Elizabeth Bennet and then, when you get to be eleven
years old or so, all hell breaks loose and the next thing you
know you're reading Norman Mailer. When I was a kid, I loved
a lot of writers that are rotten at writing about women.
Hemingway. I read Hemingway like crazy one summer. If I like
a writer, I have a thing where I have to find and read every
word he ever wrote, right down to the letters and diaries. You
can kill a lot of time that way. Russian novelists: I went nuts for
Russian novelists when I was twelve. Heroines of history? So,
so not my thing. That said, I really did fall in love with Jane
Franklin when I was writing Book of Ages. I
struggled with her deference and her endless demurrals and
submission to Providence. But she also knocked me out: the
reading, the grit. Twelve kids, and she read and read and read.
You grew up in West Boylston and now live in
Cambridge. Did an upbringing in Massachusetts -- where
landmarks of colonial America are ever present -- inspire your
interest in history?
Nope. A lot of that stuff is pretty twee, isn't it? Quaint, precious.
Nostalgic. Blech. I had to dress up in a mob cap and make my
own dress out of yellow calico for the Bicentennial parade. It's
everything that's the opposite of what I love about history.
History isn't a museum store. It's a junkyard guarded by a fat
old dog who's meaner than hell.
Wonder Woman's creator, William Marston, had several
attempts at other careers before landing on the comic book at
age forty-seven: were historian, professor, and writer not
options, do you have other occupations you'd have liked to try
your hand at?
Novelist, c. 1887. City desk editor, c. 1908. Private eye, c. 1934.
CBS television news correspondent, c. 1958.
You're a professor of American history at Harvard:
what tools make for a good scholar of our past?
Curiosity, imagination, sympathy, wonder, and relentlessness.
What do you do to relax?
I have three kids, a dog, and four cats. There's no end of ruckus
and rumpus around here.
What is the best advice you've received as a
The Secret History of Wonder Woman 4 out of 5based on
More than 1 year ago
Fascinating and complex look at Wonder Woman's times and mores. Suffragettes, birth control advocates, bondage (!?), alternative lifestyles, censorship. Exhaustive footnotes and bibliography. Great for book club discussion as it touches on so many issues, especially the different forms feminism has taken. A real history lesson, too
More than 1 year ago
I loved it was atleast one of my favorite dc books
More than 1 year ago
The title is somewhat misleading. This book is really a biography of Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston (1893-1947) and his two wives, Sadie Elizabeth Holloway and Olive Byrne, a niece of Margaret Sanger who was the founder of Planned Parenthood. All three were strongly influenced by the early suffragists and feminists, especially Emmeline Pankhurst, and the author does a good job on showing those influences, especially feminist utopian fiction, on the early years of Wonder Woman. Armed with three degrees from Harvard, including a Ph.D. in psychology, Marston was the inventor of the first lie detector test, although the version actually used by police departments and government agencies was invented by one of his competitors. He had also written one novel and several screenplays before trying comic books and had been a consultant for Universal Studios when they were starting to produce horror movies. Except for her appearances with the Justice Society, Marston, under the pseudonym of Charles Moulton, wrote all of Wonder Woman’s adventures up until 1944, when he was stricken with polio and had to hire an assistant, and was still writing them up to two days before his death from cancer in 1947. He also hired Harry G. Peter, an illustrator for suffragette publications, to be the first artist to draw Wonder Woman. One of the early criticisms of the stories is that almost all of them featured bondage in one form or another, which was one of Moulton’s pre-occupations. He is also a polyamorist in that he lived with Holloway, Byrne, and sometimes a third woman named Marjorie Wilkes Huntley during the last twenty years of his life and had two children each by first two. His legal wife, Holloway, worked outside the home as an editor and actually supported the family because Marston multiple business ventures failed and he was unable to hold academic appointments for more than a year. Officially the “housekeeper”, Byrne stayed home and raised the children, although she did occasionally write articles for Family Circle. It was an article by Byrne, writing as Olive Richard, that brought Marston to the attention of M.C. Gaines, the first publisher of DC Comics, who hired Marston as a consultant to defend comic books against charges that they celebrated violence. Then in 1941, Marston persuaded Gaines to publish the adventures of a female superhero, who became Wonder Woman. I found the book quite fascinating and highly recommend to anyone interested in the history of either feminism or comic books.
More than 1 year ago
Loved the end notes almost as much as the main text. It's dishy, empowering, hypocritical, and ultimately engaging. Amazingly, it's non-fiction, which makes it even better.