The Secret History of Wonder Woman

The Secret History of Wonder Woman




Wars will only cease when humans enjoy being bound (by loving superiors of course).

– William Moulton Marston


A riveting work of historical detection revealing that the origins of one of the world’s most iconic superheroes hides within it a fascinating family story – and a crucial history of 20th-century feminism.
Wonder Woman, created in 1941, is the most popular female superhero of all time. Aside from Superman and Batman, no superhero has lasted as long or commanded so vast and wildly passionate a following. Like every other superhero, Wonder Woman has a secret identity. Unlike every other superhero, she has also has a secret history.
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 20th 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.
©2014 Jill Lepore (P)2014 Random House Audio


‘The Secret History of Wonder Woman’ is a bit misleading. I call this more of an origin story than anything else. Wonder Woman is very much a product of her creator, William Moulton Marston. This means that Wonder Woman is very much a product of contradiction. Throughout the narrative, Marston mannages to appear as both champion of equality and little more than a con artist willing to do anything to further his own career.
William Moulton Marston, a Harvard educated Psychologist who is the inventor of the lie detector test lived a life of deception. There was the carefully cultivated persona and the real life that Marston led.
Marston, inspired by women’s rights crusaders such as Margaret Sanger thought that women would one day rule the world. However, in his own family life he exercised great control over his two wives and their four children. His first wife, Elizabeth Holloway, was allowed to be a career woman while his second wife, Olive Byrne, was tasked with staying at home and taking care of the four children. Holloway was given an ultimatum to agree to Byrne moving in with them or having Marston leave her. Byrne was forced to give up her continued education and career goals to stay at home with the children that she had with Marston and the ones that he fathered by Holloway.
The development of Wonder Woman does not become a focal point of the story until about two thirds of the way through the narrative. It is not that Wonder Woman goes unmentioned at all up to that point, as the author compares events from Marston’s life to the Wonder Woman stories that they would inspire later on.
I did find it interesting that Marston never considered a woman for the position of Wonder Woman artist. This despite the fact that there were several qualified female candidates available to him at the time. It was at this point that I began to wonder if Marston’s feminist beliefs only extended as far as they would benefit him and no further.
The reason I found the title of this book to be a little problematic is that the story sort of ends with the death of Marston. What became of Wonder Woman after the death of Marston is perhaps more interesting to me than the creation of the character. However, this is glossed over pretty quickly in the narrative. Wonder Woman went through some pretty significant changes after Marston’s death when she was under the control of others who did not share Marston’s vision of the character. It is too bad because even though the character’s history is so powerfully linked to her creator, her history continues on to this very day.
One of the other fascinating parts of the story is Marston’s obsession with bondage. The quote in the introduction is from Marston who seemed obsessed with having people, women in particular, chained up. This was a matter of much discussion in the earliest days of Wonder Woman and Marston fiercely fought any effort to reduce these instances in the scripts. The implication of what this all means is far beyond my ability to speculate.
I enjoyed this book. I feel I now have a better understanding of Wonder Woman’s development and her place in the history of the feminist movement. I do not come away from this book an expert on Wonder Woman. I have no idea of her portrayal in today’s society as that was not touched upon much and only in the epilogue. Still, it was worthwhile as a history lesson in the suffrage movement, 20th century feminism and how that era of feminism is different than the feminism of today.


Dr. Jill Lepore is a professor of American history at Harvard University, a staff writer at The New Yorker and a New York Times bestselling author. She has written several books dealing with different aspects of American history and one fiction novel.
Would I consider reading more of Lepore’s work in the future? I would happily read anything she writes on a subject that I am interested but am not sure I would pick up any book just because she happened to author it. That might sound like a somewhat negative statement but in truth most authors I enjoy fit in to that same category. I base my reading more off of subject matter than I do authorship.


This is not the first of Lepore’s books to make it to audio. However, this is the only one that has been narrated by Lepore herself. Overall, I think she did a fine job. Her narration carries with it an authoritative tone. This is doubtlessly a product of her own self confidence and knowledge of the subject matter.
She does a good job throughout of emoting properly and providing appropriate inflection in her voice. If I have one criticism it would be a minor one. There are times when her emphatic statements come close to sounding as though she is screaming at the listener. These are never more than a sentence or two and seem to decrease as the book progresses but I thought in the beginning that she took the phrase “screaming the headlines” a little too close to heart.
Other than that, which may be my own subjective feeling on the matter, I enjoyed her performance. At no point did I find myself wishing that she had allowed someone else to handle the task of narrating her work.


This is another typical track from Random House Audio. It is a clean and clear track with a consistent sound throughout. There are chapter stops in the appropriate places and no music or other effects appear on the track.


In my opinion, ‘The Secret Origin of Wonder Woman’ would have been a more appropriate title for this book. The history of the character of Wonder Woman continued on well after the death of William Moulton Marston. Most of what became of Wonder Woman after Marston’s death and how it compared or contrasted with the feminist movement is confined to the book’s epilogue.
‘The Secret History of Wonder Woman’ is not without value. It is an interesting read if you are interested in the women’s suffrage movement and 20th century feminism. It will also have natural appeal to the most devoted of Wonder Woman fans.
However, if you are looking for the total history of Wonder Woman, you may find this book to be lacking. If you are looking for something that traces the character from development to modern day and looks at the way she was handled differently by different writers and editors, this is not that book.
Ultimately, I enjoyed reading ‘The Secret History of Wonder Woman’ because I am a student of history. There is no question that Wonder Woman is the product of her creator, the life that he led and the causes he championed. When considering the life of William Moulton Marston though, I am left with more questions than answers. This is not the fault of the book or Lepore’s writing but is a product of the conflicting parts of the man himself.


Title Author Narrator Publisher Genre Release Date Running Time Score
The Secret History of Wonder Woman Jill Lepore Jill Lepore Random House Audio History 10/28/2014 9 hours, 5 minutes 7/10


A copy of ‘The Secret History of Wonder Woman’ was purchased from Audible for review.