When I was very young, I would watch Wonder Woman (also the Bionic Woman. I was all about the strong female protagonist.) I can’t say I was ever into the comic books but Lynda Carter with her long dark hair and red boots was my heroine. I didn’t remember much about Wonder Woman when The Secret History of Wonder Woman came onto my radar, but the description mentioned feminism and suffrage so really how could I say no?
The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore isn’t so much about Wonder Woman herself but her creator and the women who influenced him. William Marston doesn’t seem like a man that would be the driving force behind a comic book hero. His life is a labyrinth of failures and accomplishments that lead up to the creation of Wonder Woman. He was the inventor of the polygraph, a psychologist who wrote The Emotions of Normal People, and scriptwriter for Hollywood. He was an intellectual Jack of All Trades, which meant he was Master of None. He was a professional failure by the time the opportunity to shape the character of Wonder Woman came around.
In his personal life, he was into Free Love, bondage, and sex parties. He had a long term polyamorous relationship with his wife, Elizabeth Holloway, and Olive Byrnes, the niece of Margaret Sanger. I love the irony of Marston’s DC Comics wiki page: Personal History of William Marston is unknown. Or do they not want to try and sum up that part of his life? Elizabeth herself was a successful psychologist. Olive had aspirations of an academic career but because of their circumstances couldn’t pursue them.
The Secret History of Wonder Woman meanders into Greek mythology, experimental science, suffrage, birth control activism, and first wave feminism. It’s often hard to see how these things connect with Wonder Woman until Lepore points it out. What I got from it was that when Marston didn’t have a say in what Wonder Woman did on the pages of her comic, she wasn’t the strong, bad ass, feminist protagonist that we know. Instead, she was reverted into what men believed was womanly at the time: a powerless damsel, an accessory, or simply disposable. Marston created a physically powerful character who didn’t need men and believed in justice for all.
Jill Lepore must have done a ton of research for The Secret History of Wonder Woman. That story must be a book in itself! It was worth it because The Secret History of Wonder Woman is quite the education. I could have done without most of the polygraph stuff though.
About the Audio: Jill Lepore herself does the narration. I was on the fence about listening to the audio version but am glad I did. Her narration adds so much to the book. She’s an excellent speaker.
Now go back in time to 1975 and relive some great moments from the TV series.
Thanks to Random House Audio for the review copy. All opinions are my own.