Wonder Woman is one of the most iconic character in comicss, but she has secrets. We don’t really know her. Not really. We don’t know her true heritage, the roots that she rose from. Yes, she emerged from Paradise Island, shaped from clay by her mother, but the life of her creator William Moulton Marston has been shrouded in shadows. We know that Superman emerged from the imaginations of two boys who loved the pulp mags and that Batman sprung from a man (or men) who loved The Shadow and similar heroes of the era.
But Wonder Woman? Beyond the usual stuff we all know about Diana Prince fighting for female power and coming to Man’s World to fight WWII, much of Wonder Woman’s background has been hidden in the haze, the stuff of legend and whispered rumors.
Thankfully there’s now a book, intriguingly named The Secret History of Wonder Woman, which by Harvard University History Professor Jill Lepore, which explores the background of the iconic heroine.
You may be aware that Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston was the inventor of the lie detector, but you’re probably not aware of Martson’s complicated and thoroughly strange life. As Lepore explains in thoughtful, well-researched detail, Wonder Woman has a deep connection to the long tale of feminism in America, with the drive for birth control in America, and with all kinds of other unexpected things…
…not least of which is Marston’s completely bizarre family arrangement – he lived with his wife and their two kids, and his mistress and the two kids he had with her, and with a third woman as well. All the while Marston played pop psychologist and advocate for women’s equality, he stayed at home like a rajah while his wife worked all day and his other… wife, I guess you’d call her… stayed home and watched the kids while maintaining a flirtatious relationship with Martson in articles published in Family Circle magazine.
All of this makes Wonder Woman perhaps the most unlikely, improbable, edgy super-hero of her peers – and as Lepore details WW in the comics, in the heroine’s tiara that represents her heroism and the way she’s constantly bound in chains, symbolically, like the old women’s suffrage cartoons that Marston admired – the weirdness is thrilling.
The Secret History of Wonder Woman is a rare chronicle that is nearly impossible to put down because it’s about so much: sex and polyamory, the treatment of women in our society, the Equal Rights Amendment, the crazy peculiarities of a very strange household. There’s a tremendously eccentric man at its center, an improbable feminist icon as its result, and a delightful and fascinating tale at its center. Jill Lepore’s research is scrupulous, and, as you can hear from her interview with Terry Gross, she almost gets euphoric from telling this story.
Want to try before you buy, or just interested in a short version of this remarkable tale? Read Lepore’s New Yorker article