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  • The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore
  • Leila McNeill
The Secret History of Wonder Woman. By Jill Lepore. Vintage Books, 2015. 451 pp.

"Stop the presses": Jill Lepore has the history of Wonder Woman! (xiii) In The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Lepore, a Harvard historian, explores the fascinating forces behind Wonder Woman's making—her unconventional creator, early twentieth-century suffrage, experimental psychology, and the birth control movement, among them. The Secret History of Wonder Woman is divided into three main parts, bookended by the introductory "The Splash Page" and the epilogue, "Great Hera! I'm Back"; each chapter is cleverly named for a feature of the comic. In "The Splash Page," not only does Lepore claim to reveal the real history of Wonder Woman, which she alone has been able to find, but she declares that Wonder Woman is the "missing link" in the history of feminism, filling the gap between "the woman suffrage campaigns of the 1910s and … the troubled place of feminism fully a century later" (xiii).

In part 1, "Veritas," Lepore explores the early years of Wonder Woman's creator, William Moulton Marston, including his privileged upbringing, his introduction to feminism and education at Harvard, and his personal relationships. The Harvard campus was thrown into controversy when the university denied British suffrage leader Emmeline Pankhurst permission to speak on campus; this was the undergraduate Marston's first notable foray into suffrage. At Harvard, Marston, a law and psychology student, entered into what Lepore dubs "The Experimental Life," when he became interested in the study of emotions and deception and helped develop the lie detector test. Marston applied his tests to criminal cases of petty theft, but his research failed to impress professionals in the field of psychology and in various government agencies. Lepore also strings together his personal life with wife, Elizabeth Sadie Holloway, who was also a fierce suffragist and ambitious intellect, and with romantic partner Marjorie W. Huntley, also a suffragist with [End Page 195] an unconventional belief in the "importance of being tied and chained" (56). Huntley later makes an appearance in much of Marston's professional work and comics. Marston, Holloway, and Huntley entered into a secret romantic relationship that continued for decades: the expert in deception became an expert in deceiving everyone about his personal life. Though "Veritas" is mostly about Marston, Lepore inserts possible connections to Wonder Woman, illustrated through excerpts from the comics—once in a while reminding us that this is a book about Wonder Woman too.

Part 2, "Family Circle," details Marston's connection with the birth control movement of Margaret Sanger and how the comics came to be. Olive Byrne, the niece of Margaret Sanger and daughter of Ethel Byrne, met Marston as a student at Tufts University, where they began what would be considered by most people an unethical partnership for a student and professor. Byrne assisted him with experiments in sexual domination and submission, which involved measuring women's pleasure while being dominated. Lepore specifically mentions the "Baby Party" at Tufts, which makes a later appearance in Wonder Woman. Eventually, Byrne moved in with Marston and Holloway, and she entered into an unofficial marriage with Marston. More so than in part 1, Lepore draws out the connections between Marston's personal and professional life and Wonder Woman. Byrne wore thick silver bracelets, which Lepore connects to the gold bracelets worn by Wonder Woman. Marston's lie detector test not only literally shows up in Wonder Woman but also carries unmistakable similarity to Wonder Woman's "lasso of truth" or "golden lasso." In 1937, Marston staged a press conference during which he declared his support for a matriarchy. With Marston's connection to Sanger, women's liberation and birth control, and the lie detector, Lepore builds a strong argument that Wonder Woman was indeed the product of her creator's cultural and political context, as well as his secret family life.

In part 3 "Paradise Island," Lepore turns more of her attention to Wonder Woman. After he announced the upcoming matriarchy in 1937, Marston wrote the first installment of Wonder Woman in 1941. Up until this point, many of Lepore...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2162-6294
Print ISSN
0742-5562
Pages
pp. 195-198
Launched on MUSE
2017-07-14
Open Access
No
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