The Secret History of Wonder Woman, by Jill Lepore

Giulia Miller writes on the weird backstory to a female superhero, from women’s suffrage to lie detectors

December 4, 2014

If you’d asked me a month ago to give a quick precis of famous comic-book superheroes, I would have said that Superman is patriotic, Spider-Man is very cool and Batman is dark and sinister. But Wonder Woman? She’s a leaping brunette in red, white and blue, played by Lynda Carter on television in the 1970s. And had you asked me about these superheroes’ creators, I would have shrugged and mumbled something about Jewish male writers with an inferiority complex.


Jill Lepore’s fascinating new study proves that not only is Wonder Woman even cooler than Spider-Man, but there is a whole lot to be said about her back-story, which is decidedly weirder and wackier than any comic-book fantasy. Lepore is undoubtedly the perfect woman for the job: a staff writer at The New Yorker whose writing style is quirky and mischievous, she is also a Harvard University historian whose work focuses on “the absences and asymmetries of evidence in the historical record”. It is an area that is particularly pertinent to this book, which reads like nothing so much as the end result of a pitched battle between the author and a large, tangled web of misinformation and deceit.

The fact that this symbol of strong, courageous womanhood spent rather a lot of time being tied up was merely a bonus

The confusion and half-truths are, of course, the fun bit. The history of Wonder Woman comes wrapped in a very curious and kinky garment indeed, made up of the women’s suffrage movement, feminism, bondage, “love binding” and lie-detectors, all brought together by her strange and unlikely creator, William Moulton Marston (1893-1947). Lepore draws on an impressive treasure trove of archival material, including previously unseen correspondence between Marston and his wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston, who first proposed the idea of a superheroine, to unpick each element in turn and then stitch them together in book form. In some instances you marvel that Lepore obtained access to such information, and she compounds this impression by regularly reinforcing the improbability of it all. “Stop the presses,” she announces at one point, “I’ve got the history of Wonder Woman.” The result is part detective fiction, part drama, part biography, but mostly an utterly gripping read.

The book is loosely divided into two sections, one chronicling the unconventional life of Marston and his family, the other considering the development of the Wonder Woman brand. Both are fascinating, although arguably the latter’s narrower focus makes it a little punchier.

Lepore introduces her male lead in characteristically deadpan style: “William Moulton Marston, who believed women should rule the world, decided at the unnaturally early and altogether impetuous age of eighteen that the time had come for him to die. In everything he was precocious.” This brief description perfectly encapsulates her subject’s peculiar appeal; he was morbid but he was clever and he advocated women’s rights from a very early age. He began his studies at Harvard in September 1911 as a law student, but became so demoralised by a compulsory course in medieval history that, in a wild overreaction, he bought a vial of sweet-smelling, deadly hydro-cyanic acid. He was saved, unexpectedly, by his first-year course in philosophy, which he loved. He decided to live.

On 6 December that year, British suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst came to Cambridge, Massachusetts and gave a talk to 1,500 students. Marston was hooked. A revolution was taking place: women were seeking political and social equality and unshackling themselves from the demands of men. At that point, Marston couldn’t have known that, somewhere in his subconscious, the character of Wonder Woman was already being formed – an Amazonian warrior who loses her superpowers the minute a man binds her in chains.

Wonder Woman would not make her publication debut in All Star Comics until 1941; between 1911 and then, Marston did other things – quite a few other things, in fact. If anything, The Secret History of Wonder Woman shows us that creating his female superhero was the very last thing he did to salvage his foundering career – and it worked. Before Wonder Woman’s success, Marston studied history, philosophy, law and psychology; he was treasurer of a fabrics company; he tried and failed to set up a law firm; he worked in academia as a legal psychologist, moving in an alarming downward trajectory from chair to assistant professor to adjunct; and most importantly he invented and developed the lie detector test.

Lepore’s account of Marston’s obsession with monitoring deceit is easily one of the creepiest parts of the book. In 1912, he and his partner Hugo Münsterberg, a stern bald German psychologist with a large bushy moustache, began a series of experiments that involved strapping their subjects to machines and monitoring their blood pressure. Lepore devotes a lot of space to these experiments, and their connection to the key weapon in Wonder Woman’s arsenal: the magic lasso that forces its captive to tell the truth. Her strategy throughout the book’s first part is to begin a chapter talking about Marston and then end it with a revelatory match with Wonder Woman. Although occasionally overdetermined, it is an effective approach, and lifts the book beyond straightforward biography.

It is Marston’s highly complicated personal life that serves as the entry point to the meaty subject of feminism and women’s rights. Indeed, it is impossible to finish this book without learning a great deal about the topic, and even those familiar with the subject might never have guessed how it connected to Wonder Woman. The shock disclosure is that Olive Byrne, one of Marston’s two (and occasionally three) simultaneous long-term partners, was the niece of world-renowned birth control activist Margaret Sanger, who we learn was an inspiration for Marston’s superheroine but categorically refused to be associated with her. Strangely, as Lepore notes, “in no part of the story of Sanger’s life, as she told it – as she saved it – did she ever mention Wonder Woman”.

Sanger’s brutal erasure of this part of her life is one of the many peculiarities that Lepore chronicles. Marston’s family life is far too confusing to describe – countless children, countless surnames – but the lasting impression is an endless headache of abuse, neglect, joy, white lies, serious lies and monumental love. I honestly can’t remember most of the details; arguably, Lepore’s impressively meticulous research has served up an overload of biographical information. But certain emotionally powerful images – a baby thrown out into the snow, a little girl who remembered her mother only from the scratch of a brooch – have stuck with me from Lepore’s account of Wonder Woman’s highly charged origins.

When Marston wrote the first Wonder Woman story, he championed her as a symbol of strong, courageous womanhood who refused to be treated differently to men. The fact that she was beautiful and wore short skirts (and later hot pants) and spent rather a lot of time being tied up was, it seems, merely a bonus. The section in which Lepore examines the negative hype and misgivings that swirled around her popularity in the 1940s is especially thought-provoking: is Wonder Woman harmful or beneficial to young girls and boys? The Secret History of Wonder Woman never fully answers this question, although Lepore’s consideration of her role as a feminist icon during the 1970s certainly hints at a response.


Giulia Miller is affiliated lecturer in modern Hebrew, University of Cambridge.

The Secret History of Wonder Woman

By Jill Lepore
Scribe, 432pp, £20.00
ISBN 9781925106329
Published 1 December 2014

The author

Jill Lepore, the David Woods Kemper ‘41 professor of American history at Harvard University, grew up in Massachusetts and lives in Cambridge in that state, “with my husband, our three sons, four cats, and a dog we think of as a lesser Dane. Don’t ask me why, but I think we are about to get another dog…”

“I spent most of my childhood reading and the rest of it working. Paper routes, and kids’ stuff like that, but there was a restaurant across the street from our house – the Franklin Manor – and we all worked there. My sisters worked in the coatroom. My brother washed the dishes. I worked in the kitchen. I also worked as a chambermaid in a motel in town. When I was 13, I got a fake work permit so that I could sell shoes in a department store. I hid in the stockroom and read books.”

She names her mother among her most formative influences. In a moving essay, The Prodigal Daughter, published in The New Yorker, Lepore looks back on “what she taught me: how to escape traps and hunt for beauty”.

Also important was her high school English teacher, Tom Moore, who “was brilliant, stunning, and brave, and the first person I ever met who seemed familiar to me, and not strange”.

Lepore took an undergraduate degree at Tufts University, a master’s at the University of Michigan and her doctorate at Yale University. The move that brought the greatest culture shock was, she recalls, “Tufts, for sure, because I had never met people with money before. When I was a kid, we weren’t broke, but we were very Old World. We never ate in restaurants. In college, people would want to go out for dinner all the time. With what money? It was miserable.”

In addition to her academic post, Lepore is a staff writer at The New Yorker. She has several acclaimed monographs and a co-authored novel to her name, and has been named Harvard College Professor in honour of her teaching.

Has she discovered the secret to super-powered efficiency? “No. I am bad at not working, not in the chic, smartphone-and-cafe, it’s-2014-everyone-works-all-the-time way, but in the I-cleaned-motel-rooms-when-I-was-nine way. I love teaching, I love research, and I love writing, and I think of them as different versions of the same intellectual work, with the same challenges and the same joys.”

Lepore’s next book is about Charles Dickens’ adventures in America. Does she see him as a duplicitous, wife-and-family abandoning rotter, or a brilliant and principled man of letters?

She replies: “I’m writing about his 1842 trip, which is long before he abandons his wife and becomes a rotter. I adore Dickens. I don’t know that I’d want to write about Dickens At The End. Too terrible.”

Asked if she has any hobbies she cares to mention, Lepore confesses: “Oh, I putter. I putter like crazy. There’s always another garden bed to dig, or a piece of furniture that needs work. When I’m restless, I compulsively paint the walls of my house different colors.

“Also: I quilt. I quilt when I don’t have anything to write. We now have a ridiculous number of quilts. Everyone in my house would rather I write. Then there aren’t scraps all over the floor, and spools of thread in the kitchen.”

Karen Shook

Times Higher Education free 30-day trial

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.