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The Secret History of Wonder Woman
Cover of The Secret History of Wonder Woman
The Secret History of Wonder Woman

A riveting work of historical detection revealing that the origin of Wonder Woman, one of the world's most iconic superheroes, hides within it a fascinating family story—and a crucial history of twentieth-century feminism
Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore has uncovered an astonishing trove of documents, including the never-before-seen private papers of William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman's creator. Beginning in his undergraduate years at Harvard, Marston was influenced by early suffragists and feminists, starting with Emmeline Pankhurst, who was banned from speaking on campus in 1911, when Marston was a freshman. In the 1920s, Marston and his wife, Sadie Elizabeth Holloway, brought into their home Olive Byrne, the niece of Margaret Sanger, one of the most influential feminists of the twentieth century. The Marston family story is a tale of drama, intrigue, and irony. In the 1930s, Marston and Byrne wrote a regular column for Family Circle celebrating conventional family life, even as they themselves pursued lives of extraordinary nonconformity. Marston, internationally known as an expert on truth—he invented the lie detector test—lived a life of secrets, only to spill them on the pages of Wonder Woman.

The Secret History of Wonder Woman
is a tour de force of intellectual and cultural history. Wonder Woman, Lepore argues, is the missing link in the history of the struggle for women's rights—a chain of events that begins with the women's suffrage campaigns of the early 1900s and ends with the troubled place of feminism a century later.

This edition includes a new afterword with fresh revelations based on never before seen letters and photographs from the Marston family's papers.
With 161 illustrations and 16 pages in full color

A riveting work of historical detection revealing that the origin of Wonder Woman, one of the world's most iconic superheroes, hides within it a fascinating family story—and a crucial history of twentieth-century feminism
Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore has uncovered an astonishing trove of documents, including the never-before-seen private papers of William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman's creator. Beginning in his undergraduate years at Harvard, Marston was influenced by early suffragists and feminists, starting with Emmeline Pankhurst, who was banned from speaking on campus in 1911, when Marston was a freshman. In the 1920s, Marston and his wife, Sadie Elizabeth Holloway, brought into their home Olive Byrne, the niece of Margaret Sanger, one of the most influential feminists of the twentieth century. The Marston family story is a tale of drama, intrigue, and irony. In the 1930s, Marston and Byrne wrote a regular column for Family Circle celebrating conventional family life, even as they themselves pursued lives of extraordinary nonconformity. Marston, internationally known as an expert on truth—he invented the lie detector test—lived a life of secrets, only to spill them on the pages of Wonder Woman.

The Secret History of Wonder Woman
is a tour de force of intellectual and cultural history. Wonder Woman, Lepore argues, is the missing link in the history of the struggle for women's rights—a chain of events that begins with the women's suffrage campaigns of the early 1900s and ends with the troubled place of feminism a century later.

This edition includes a new afterword with fresh revelations based on never before seen letters and photographs from the Marston family's papers.
With 161 illustrations and 16 pages in full color

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  • From the book

    The Splash Page
    Wonder Woman is the most popular female comic-book superhero of all time. Aside from Superman and Batman, no other comic-book character has lasted as long. Like every other superhero, Wonder Woman has a secret identity. Unlike every other superhero, she also has a secret history.

    Superman first bounded over tall buildings in 1938. Batman began lurking in the shadows in 1939. Wonder Woman landed in her invisible plane in 1941. She was an Amazon from an island of women who had lived apart from men since the time of ancient Greece. She came to the United States to fight for peace, justice, and women's rights. She had golden bracelets; she could stop bullets. She had a magic lasso; anyone she roped had to tell the truth. To hide her identity, she disguised herself as a secretary named Diana Prince; she worked for U.S. military intelligence. Her gods were female, and so were her curses. "Great Hera!" she cried. "Suffering Sappho!" she swore. She was meant to be the strongest, smartest, bravest woman the world had ever seen. She looked like a pin-up girl. In 1942, she was recruited to the Justice Society of America, joining Superman, Batman, the Flash, and Green Lantern; she was the only woman. She wore a golden tiara, a red bustier, blue underpants, and knee-high, red leather boots. She was a little slinky; she was very kinky.

    Over seven decades, across continents and oceans, Wonder Woman has never been out of print. Her fans number in the millions. Generations of girls have carried their sandwiches to school in Wonder Woman lunch boxes. But not even Wonder Woman's most ardent followers know the true story of her origins. She's as secret as a heart.

    In an episode from 1944, a newspaper editor named Brown, desperate to discover Wonder Woman's secret past, assigns a team of reporters to chase her down. She easily escapes them, outrunning their car in her high-heeled boots, leaping like an antelope. Brown, gone half mad, suffers a breakdown and is committed to a hospital. Wonder Woman, taking pity on him, puts on a nurse's uniform and brings him a scroll. "This parchment seems to be the history of that girl you call 'Wonder Woman'!" she tells him. "A strange, veiled woman left it with me." Brown leaps out of bed and, not stopping to change out of his hospital johnny, races back to the city desk, where he cries out, parchment in hand, "Stop the presses! I've got the history of Wonder Woman!"

    Brown's nuts; he hasn't really got the history of Wonder Woman. All he's got is her Amazonian legend.

    This book has got something else. The Secret History of Wonder Woman is the result of years of research in dozens of libraries, archives, and collections, including the private papers of Wonder Woman's creator, William Moulton Marston--papers that have never been seen by anyone outside of Marston's family. I read the published material first: newspapers and magazines, trade journals and scientific papers, comic strips and comic books. Then I went to the archives. I didn't find anything written on parchment; I found something better: thousands of pages of documents, manuscripts and typescripts, photographs and drawings, letters and postcards, criminal court records, notes scribbled in the margins of books, legal briefs, medical records, unpublished memoirs, story drafts, sketches, student transcripts, birth certificates, adoption papers, military records, family albums, scrapbooks, lecture notes, FBI files, movie scripts, the carefully typed meeting minutes of a sex cult, and tiny diaries written in secret code. Stop the presses. I've got the history of Wonder Woman.

    Wonder Woman isn't only an Amazonian princess with...

About the Author-
  • Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper '41 Professor of American History at Harvard University and a staff writer at The New Yorker. Her Book of Ages was a finalist for the National Book Award. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Reviews-
  • Kirkus

    August 15, 2014
    The surprising origins of a 20th-century goddess. Wonder Woman, writes Lepore (History/Harvard Univ.; Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, 2013), "was the product of the suffragist, feminist, and birth control movements of the 1900s and 1910s and became a source of the women's liberation and feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s." Long-legged, wearing short shorts and knee-high red boots, Wonder Woman burst into comics in 1941, the creation of William Moulton Marston, a Harvard-educated psychologist. Marston, a master at self-promotion, had failed as a college professor; colleagues scorned his publicity stunts. When he tried to market himself as a psychology consultant to the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover opened a file on him. Among the many topics on which Marston expounded was women's power. "Women have twice the emotional development, the ability for love, than man has," he announced. Oddly, he also believed that submission and bondage were intrinsic to women's happiness. "In episode after episode," writes Lepore, "Wonder Woman is chained, bound, gagged, lassoed, tied, fettered and manacled," scenes that Marston described "in careful, intimate detail, with utmost precision," so that the artist who drew the series could get them exactly right. The creation, publishing history and eventual demise of the cartoon character are only part of Lepore's story, which uncovers the secret of Marston's startlingly unconventional family. Married to Elizabeth "Betty" Holloway, who often provided the family's sole support, Marston brought into their home Olive Byrne, the niece of Margaret Sanger. Byrne had been his student, became his mistress, and had two of his children, who were brought up thinking their father had died. Marston had two children with Holloway, as well, whom Byrne raised, freeing Holloway to go to work. After Marston's death in 1947, the two women spent the rest of their lives together. Lepore mines new archival sources to reconstruct Marston's tangled home life and the controversy generated by Wonder Woman. It's an irresistible story, and the author tells it with relish and delight.

    COPYRIGHT(2014) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    May 15, 2014
    A Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard historian, Lepore tells the story of Wonder Woman and her creator, William Moulton Marston, whom Lepore portrays as holding strong feminist beliefs. Interestingly, he also invented the lie detector.

    Copyright 2014 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Tim Hanley, New York Review of Books Audrey Bilger, San Francisco Chronicle "If it makes your head spin to imagine a skimpily clad pop culture icon as (spoiler alert!) a close relation of feminist birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, then prepare to be dazzled by the truths revealed in historian Jill Lepore's "The Secret History of Wonder Woman." The story behind Wonder Woman is sensational, spellbinding and utterly improbable. Her origins lie in the feminism of the early 1900s, and the intertwined dramas that surrounded her creation are the stuff of pulp fiction and tabloid scandal....It took a super-sleuth to uncover the mysteries of this intricate history, hidden from view for more than half a century. With acrobatic research prowess, muscular narrative chops and disarming flashes of humor, Lepore rises to the challenge, bringing to light previously unknown details and deliberately obfuscated connections." Dwight Garner, The New York Times "On the one hand, the story ["The Secret History of Wonder Woman"] relates has more uplift than Wonder Woman's invisible airplane or her eagle-encrusted red bustier. It's a yea-saying tale about how this comic book character, created in 1941, remade American feminism and had her roots in the ideas and activism of Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood. On the other hand, "The Secret History of Wonder Woman" is fundamentally a biography of Wonder Woman's larger-than-life and vaguely creepy male creator, William Moulton Marston.... [Lepore] fully tells Marston's history for the first time, as well as the complete history of how so many crisp feminist ideas made their way into Wonder Woman comics. It's complicated material that she capably explores...There are many profitable detours in this book: the history of female cartoonists; the moral panic over comics and juvenile delinquency; a history of the feminist movement."
  • Colette Bancroft, Tampa Bay Times Ariel Gonzalez, Miami Herald "A Harvard professor with impeccable scholarly credentials, Lepore treats her subject seriously, as if she is writing the biography of a feminist pioneer like Margaret Sanger, the founder of the birth control movement -- which this book is, to an extent....Through extensive research and a careful reading of the Wonder Woman comic books, she argues convincingly that the story of this character is an indelible chapter in the history of women's rights."
  • Kait Calabro, allgeektome.com "Wonderfully weird....astounding....Lepore is such a lively writer that she sweeps the reader along in this strange tale. It's as much fun as a ride in Wonder Woman's invisible airplane, and just as revealing."
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