Book Review: Well-Behaved? Let's Assume Not.
The origins of America's favorite Amazon are recounted with witty prose and superheroic scholarship
Reviewed by Rosalind Faires, Fri., Nov. 28, 2014
The Secret History of Wonder Womanby Jill Lepore; Knopf, 432pp., $29.95
Suffering Sappho! Athena's Shield! Not Ron Burgundy's exclamations these, but curses approved for use in Wonder Woman comics as revealed in The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Jill Lepore's study of America's favorite Amazon. Lepore, a Harvard professor and staff writer for The New Yorker, reveals a lot more than catchphrases here, however. A book about Wonder Woman's origins can't help but be about the man who created her, William Moulton Marston, and a book about Marston can't help but be a bit scandalous.
While Marston's predilection for bondage can be seen by anyone perusing a Golden Age Wonder Woman comic (hardly an issue fails to include the use of chains or other bindings), it's Lepore's astoundingly thorough research that illuminates Marston's pre-comics career and carefully concealed private life. He appears here under many guises: staunch self-proclaimed feminist, tireless huckster promoting the lie detector of his own invention, domineering but loving polygamist family man, a bit of a creep.
The Secret History spends surprisingly little time documenting Wonder Woman's career in comics, but only because Lepore's interest is in all the details that added up to the character's creation. When relating Marston's exposure to the suffragette movement while studying at Harvard, Lepore takes time to track the popularity of Amazon mythology in feminist fiction of the time. She notes Marston's failure to get lie-detector results admitted into evidence in a murder trial so she can point to the significance of a WW story in which the Lasso of Truth (the Amazonian lariat that compels all who touch it to 'fess up) is used to great effect in a courtroom. Photos of Olive Byrne, one of Marston's two wives, are included so readers themselves might note the similarity between her silver bracelets and the bullet-deflecting ones Wonder Woman wears.
Plenty of salacious stories are detailed within – yes, Marston and his wives participated in a "cult of female sexual power," and one chapter is titled "The Baby Party," which is as weird as one imagines – but The Secret History's most delightful surprises are tamer: Lepore's in-depth account of the rise of the birth control movement and the windows into the lives of Marston's wives, Sadie Elizabeth Holloway and Olive Byrne, both criminally overshadowed by their bombastic husband. Wonder Woman's road to the status of feminist icon is a bumpy one, but Lepore proves, through admirable scholarship and witty prose, that it is a history worth uncovering.