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The Secret History of Wonder Woman

Cover of The Secret History of Wonder Woman

The Secret History of Wonder Woman

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.
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.
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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...
About the Author-
  • 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.
Reviews-
  • AudioFile Magazine Like the lawyer who poorly represents himself at a trial, Jill Lepore is a poor choice to perform her landmark book on the bizarre backstory of Wonder Woman and her creator. Wonder Woman, a DC superhero known around the world, was created by William Moulton Marston, an egocentric polygamist with delusions of grandeur and strange ideas about womanhood. His obsession with bondage was evident in hundreds of Wonder Woman comics in the 1940s, a phenomenon that changed only after his death. Lepore's book is powerful, but her performance is poor. Her voice is sometimes screechy and quavering, and does not lend itself to male dialogue. But the book is amazing as it reveals Marston's desire to be dominated by women and his peculiar lifestyle with the two, possibly three, women who shared his home. M.S. © AudioFile 2014, Portland, Maine

  • Ariel Gonzalez, Miami Herald
    "A Harvard professor with impeccable scholarly credentials, Lepore treats her subject seriously, as if she is writing the biography of a feminist pioneer like Margaret Sanger, the founder of the birth control movement -- which this book is, to an extent....Through extensive research and a careful reading of the Wonder Woman comic books, she argues convincingly that the story of this character is an indelible chapter in the history of women's rights."

  • Elisabeth Donnelly,Flavorwire
    "Lepore does a wonderful job....is spry and able as she draws parallels between the comics and the lives of Marston and his "wives."... a fascinating, wonderfully researched book, and Lepore sheds light on what had been a longtime secret for those in the know."

  • Meredith Maran, Good Housekeeping
    "This captivating, sometimes racy, charming illustrated history is one part biography of the character and one part biography of her fascinating creator, psychologist and inventor William Moulton Marston--an early feminist who believed, way before his time, that the world would be a better place if only women were running it....In the process of bringing her 'superhero' to life in this very carefully researched, witty secret 'herstory,' Lepore herself emerges as a kind of superheroine: a woman on a mission--as energetic, powerful, brilliant and provocative as her subject."

  • Library Journal
    "An engaging, well-researched look at the unconventional family behind the character and stories of Wonder Woman....Lepore handles her potentially thorny topic well and manages to avoid being salacious or gossipy....Fans interested in the background of the character and readers who appreciate well-written popular history will enjoy this thought-provoking volume."
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The Secret History of Wonder Woman
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