Review: ‘The Secret History of Wonder Woman’ by Jill Lepore

91xyaczlfwlWonder Woman came into my life in the form of Lynda Carter in the TV series of the mid-1970s. Not being that into comic books, I didn’t pay her much attention until the Patty Jenkin’s directed film came out last year. The 2017 movie reminded me that Wonder Woman has been a firm part of my consciousness throughout my life, often with the theme song playing in my head (Wonder Woman, the world is waiting for you…).

I never thought much about the people behind her creation, and so The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore, published in 2014, was a fascinating read, especially Wonder Woman’s ties to such important figures in the history of the American feminist movement like Margaret Sanger, who opened the first birth control clinic in 1916 (and was arrested for it, along with her sister, who went on a hunger strike during her incarceration).

Sanger has been called a model for Wonder Woman, and her connection as muse isn’t very distant. Margaret Sanger’s niece Olive, who is raised by Sanger, becomes a student of the psychologist William Marston, and later his lover, and later the mother of two of his children. She, Marston, and Marston’s wife, Elizabeth, lived together. Marston and Elizabeth had two children, and Marston also adopted Olive’s two children.

Lepore shows how both Elizabeth and Olive were also influential in the creation and writing of Wonder Woman. Supposedly Elizabeth shaped Marston’s idea of a superhero that fought with love instead of firepower by insisting that the character be female. And Olive’s bracelets are said to be the inspiration for Wonder Woman’s bracelets.

Meanwhile, Wonder Woman’s own lasso of truth, Lepore suggests, comes out of one of Marston’s own early inventions—the lie detector test based on blood pressure.

In some ways, Lepore’s book can be read as an extended answer to the question: Where does the creator of Wonder Woman get his ideas? And that answer includes the history of American feminism; the history of psychology; the application of psychology to law enforcement through now discredited lie detector tests; the application of psychology to Hollywood storytelling; controversies surrounding comic books and possible connections to violent and anti-social behavior among youths; polyamory and the kinds of deceptions involved to maintain those kinds of relationships; the history of comic books; and all sorts of descriptions of bondage, which Marston’s fought to include in the Wonder Woman comic books.

There’s a lot of great research that went into this book, and Lepore’s organization and writing  of it makes for a compelling read.

So before the next Wonder Woman movie comes out (a stand-alone film is slated for 2019), it may be worth it to get to know who firmly attached the character is to the long history of the feminist struggle. Perhaps it is only because of those deep connections that Wonder Woman has endured as a character since she first appeared 1941, long-lived and adaptable, like Batman and Superman. Or maybe it is because there have been too few strong female heroes depicted in the media. Whatever the case, this is a great book.



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