A summary of The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore 

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jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This book tells both the story of the evolution of Wonder Woman, a feminist comic strip character modeled on the activist Margaret Sanger, and the strange story of her creator, a Harvard man named William Moulton Marston. Marston was strongly influenced by the visit of famous suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst to Harvard when he was an undergraduate, and he was inspired to eventually create a fictional woman who, like Pankhurst, was often rendered helpless when she was bound in chains by men (which is how Pankhurst was sometimes removed from protests). While an undergraduate, Marston also contemplated committing suicide by taking cyanide, and, interestingly, one of Wonder Woman's first adventures involved taking down a chemist who wanted to develop a cyanide bomb.

Wonder Woman, then, was very much the creation of Marston's strange and brilliant mind. His wife, Sadie Elizabeth Holloway, was a bright British-born woman who attended Mount Holyoke College. She was in many ways like the Amazons of myth. She was a "New Woman" who wanted women's rights and was fortunate enough in her time to attend college. Like Holloway, Wonder Woman was also a type of Amazon. She invaded a place called "Holliday College," a combination, the author posits, of Holloway and Holyoke. This college, like Harvard at the time, was controlled by men, and some of them were quite evil. Therefore, Wonder Woman was very much inspired by Marston's relationship with his bright, feminist wife. 

The book details Marston's marriage to Holloway, who was his intellectual equal. She attained a J.D. and then an M.A. from Radcliffe while Marston earned a Ph.D. from Harvard and conducted tests on a lie detector test, which he was not able to market. He later became enamored with a young woman named Olive Byrne, who lived with him and his wife and with whom he had a child. 

Under the name of Charles Moulton, he launched the Wonder Woman comic in 1941. It was incredibly successful until his death from cancer in May of 1947. Wonder Woman was powerful but could be rendered immobile by men. For example, her gold bracelets could repulse bullets, but if a man chained her with these bracelets, she lost her powers. Therefore, she was a figure of feminism, but she was still subject to male domination. As the author writes, "feminism made Wonder Woman. And then Wonder Woman remade feminism" (page xiii).

Noelle Thompson eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One must admit that The Secret History of Wonder Woman is more of a history of the Marston family than it is a true "secret history" of the character Wonder Woman. 

Originally deemed "Suprema, the Wonder Woman," which is an interesting feminine almost goddess-type name to the eventual heroine, Wonder Woman was created in the early 1940s.  She is typical of a superhero because she has a secret identity.  It is her secret "history" that is quite interesting.  Due to Lepore uncovering lots of secret documents and papers from William Moulton Marston, we learn about Wonder Woman's "birth" through Marston's own history.

Marston went to Harvard and was avidly influenced by feminists such as Pankhurst.  Marston was especially intrigued by those who were banned from speaking on campus about birth control and voting rights (and other feminist issues) all the way back in the early 1900s.  Things get even more interesting when Marston and his wife (in the 1920s after both graduated) brought the niece of a noted feminist into their home. Olive Byrne was none other than the niece of the famous Margaret Sanger, "one of the most influential feminists of the twentieth century."

Here is the Marston family, maintaining a facade of the typical 1930s life, even writing in favor of the traditional family in a regular newspaper column, all the while being influenced by radical feminist ideals!  Ironically, their lives were far from the norm and completely unconventional ... even in the sense that they were experimenting heavily in regards to their sex life with bondage and including others in their bedroom! Hence Wonder Woman's gold bracelets, to be ever a symbol of S & M! 

Of course, on the more blase side, Wonder Woman was introduced because they needed a female superhero to entice the feminine population and earn more money.  Further, critics take issue with the book because it's not really a "secret history," but more of a biography of Marston.

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