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The Secret History of Wonder Woman


The Secret History of Wonder Woman

The first thing I noticed, when beginning Jill Lepore’s detailed and heavily-researched book about the creative origins of Wonder Woman, was its cover. Designed in bright primary colors arranged in the familiar motifs of the titular character, it is a hard thing to miss at first glance. Now that I have read the book, I can see that the cover holds another meaning. It depicts a re-appropriated image of Wonder Woman shedding her alter ego, Diana Prince, to reveal her true colors underneath. I open my review with an this observation because I spent a good deal of time just staring at that simple, clever front cover, mulling over its references to the narrative inside.

After extensive research, Jill Lepore tells not just the creation story behind this iconic character, but explores the life experiences of the people directly influencing her designs. THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN is an account of the life and times of Dr. William Moulton Marston, which begins with Lepore bringing her readers up to speed on Marston’s life before Wonder Woman. We learn about his direct family, his relationship with wife Sadie Elizabeth Holloway, their early married life, Dr. Marston’s educational background and time at Harvard, and how his most famous professors influenced characters that appeared in the earliest Wonder Woman stories.

"After extensive research, Jill Lepore tells not just the creation story behind this iconic character, but explores the life experiences of the people directly influencing her designs."

The book establishes Marston’s simplest and most likable qualities before focusing on the more complicated stories of his life. As he aged, Marston’s political and emotional eccentricities became numerous --- a belief structure built on sexual fetishism, a desire for radical political change, and a family structure constructed of two wives and children from both are only a few of the subjects this book covers. Most of Marston’s beliefs were questioned, if not hated, by almost all of his four children later in his life. To illuminate this point, Lepore briefly mentions that the family didn’t attend church. To most in our age, this isn’t a very shocking admission. But instead of church, the children were led to their father’s study for an hour on Sundays to have a spirited debate on the meaning of life, in which Dr. Marston would fill their heads with his own ideals. His theories were structured around his belief that in roughly a thousand years, women would rule the world. Personally, having read articles about this man before, I found the Sunday debate story to be the most infuriating.

This book was written with a wide scope, detailing the time of the Women’s Suffragist Movement, the early days of psychological research and research into human sexuality, the Birth Control Movement and the Golden Age of Comics. Lepore has done taken an extremely complex subject and made it compulsively readable. I must be clear: this is a history book. But between the subject matter and Lepore’s excellent writing, I never once wanted to put this history book down.

Everything within these pages is clearly referenced and researched, with sources, indexes and acknowledgements numbering at 111 pages worth of material. THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN is a book for anyone curious about the creation of iconographic classics, and anyone who wishes to read about an exciting time in history --- a point that feels tremendously familiar to our own, and is made relatable through Lepore’s engaging writing and subtle humor.

Recent events in the DC comics and entertainment markets have led to accusations suggesting anti-feminist sentiments behind their doors. The “Training to be Superman’s Girlfriend” t-shirt fiasco from a few months back is a good example of DC’s failure in marketing. It would do the company some good to know where one of their most powerful and popular characters came from; regardless of Dr. Marston’s more radical opinions, this book is worth a read to get back to their roots. Wonder Woman is a standard of the industry and a character more than worth preserving --- and Jill Lepore’s work should be able to open anyone’s eyes to that.

Reviewed by Matthew Burbridge on October 28, 2014

The Secret History of Wonder Woman
by Jill Lepore