A harried reader could get the gist of The Secret History of Wonder Woman by opening it just past dead center and reading through the 16-page comic-book version of the story.
There you would learn, in brief, that William Moulton Marston, inventor of the lie detector test, came up with the idea for Wonder Woman in 1941. Also, that the Wonder Woman character drew on the feminism of Marston’s wife, Elizabeth Holloway, and of Olive Byrne, who joined the Marston household as a “housekeeper” and just happened to be the daughter of Ethel Byrne and niece of Margaret Sanger, two early, firebrand birth control activists. That under Marston, Wonder Woman enjoyed astonishing popular success, surpassed only by Superman and Batman. And that after his death, with the end of World War II and the dawn of the 1950s, Wonder Woman lost her superpowers and, like so many women who had worked in the war effort, was returned to domestic life.
But this barely scratches the surface of the personal and social history that Jill Lepore, a professor of American history at Harvard and staff writer at the New Yorker, relates so well and so playfully. Her fascinating, often brilliant new book is profusely illustrated with photographs and cartoon panels. Marston turns out to be a brilliant, bombastic self-promoter, a terrible businessman but a wonderful father to the children he has with both Elizabeth and Olive (though their true parentage remains a secret to Olive’s children until later in their lives). Marston is a complicated personality whose marital relationships would seem to make him a very unlikely feminist. And yet he was—in ways that will lead readers to ponder political orthodoxies.
Through assiduous research (the endnotes comprise almost a third of the book and are often very interesting reading), Lepore unravels a hidden history, and in so doing links her subjects’ lives to some of the most important social movements of the era. It’s a remarkable, thought-provoking achievement.