Title: The Secret History of Wonder Woman
Author: Jill Lepore
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.
My first work of nonfiction! I’m not the type of person who goes out of my way to read nonfiction – short articles or something are fine, but a whole book on one subject – not really my thing. Luckily, this was a good entry into the world of nonfiction, even if I probably won’t spend much time in it.
Wonder Woman! I’m not a huge comic book person, but I love Wonder Woman mainly because she’s the biggest female superhero there is. She needs way more attention (like maybe actually having her own movie?), so it was great reading a book about her – but I was a little surprised by how much the book focused on other things, mainly the people behind Wonder Woman. It was the history of the comic strip, but the history concerned her creator and the people around him even more than it did Wonder Woman. Not a bad thing, since I thought William Marston’s life, especially the women in it, were interesting, but it was a little surprising.
There are a lot of details in this book. You learn about a lot of people who were on the peripheral of the Wonder Woman history – people who really didn’t matter that much in telling this history, but we still got plenty of information about them. I was interested in it all, but there were times that I had to ask myself “what does this have to do with Wonder Woman and Marston again?” It was also really easy to lose track of who some people are because they weren’t big presences, but they might pop up once or twice later without reminding me of who they are, which could be confusing.
Jill Lepore definitely did her research, at least as far as I could see. The bibliography and notes at the end were about 100 pages long – roughly a fourth of the whole book! And this was all in relatively small font, mind you. I didn’t pay too much attention to all the notes because there was already plenty of information in the actual chapters, but if you’re into that kind of stuff, Lepore has a lot of information. She talked to loads of people and found plenty of primary sources, so there’s that if that’s your thing.
There was a lot of information, and some people might find the book dry, but I was surprised to see how interested I was the whole time. It took me a long time to read it – about a month or so for 300-ish pages – but every time I was actually reading, it didn’t feel dry or boring. Even when Lepore was talking about less interesting things, she wrote in a way that didn’t make it seem boring, which is definitely a good thing in my book.
This was a book that really focused on women, feminism, and girl power, all wrapped up in Wonder Woman and her story. It was cool to see how much feminism and women’s rights went into Wonder Woman and her creation. This book definitely makes me think that I would be okay with reading nonfiction every once in a while – as long as I like the subject just as much as Wonder Woman.