Review: The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore

Wonder Woman’s fascinating background, poorly written – a review of The Secret History of Wonder Woman.



Read: The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore

Stars: Two

Have you seen the trailer for the Wonder Woman movie yet? If not, stop everything, go watch it and then come back. It looks EPIC.

The Secret History of Wonder Woman, on the other hand, was disappointing. Jill Lepore found a fascinating, complex web of influences and family secrets. But the way the narrative was structured made it incredibly difficult to read. She jumped around in time and between characters with little to no transition or explanation. Given that the book is a biography of William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman’s creator, and his polygamous family,  more narrative structure would have helped immensely.

Marston was a con man who was entirely sincere. His life was full of lies and half-truths that he seemed to believe anyway. From the invention of the lie detector to the true author of various papers and books that he wrote, the truth was stretched in every way possible. He used this exaggerated credentials for publicity for himself and his creations.

Marston was an unusual man who believed in women’s rights and equality in a time when even many women did not. As an undergraduate at Harvard, he heard famous suffragettes like Florence Kelley and Emmeline Pankhurst speak. His feminism clearly influenced the creation of Wonder Woman and all she stands for.  The Marston family was polygamous at a time when bigamy was incredibly taboo, although the family kept it hidden. His two wives, Betty and Olive, and their families also influenced Wonder Woman’s creation. The younger wife, Olive, in particular, was a model for Wonder Woman. She wore two thick bracelets around her wrists following their marriage. Her aunt, Margaret Sanger, was also an influence on Wonder Woman’s principles and activism.

Lepore discusses the changes to Wonder Woman following Marston’s death. The character remained popular, but her focus turned away from gender equality. The new writer did not agree with Marston’s vision of Wonder Woman as a women’s rights activist. In the 1970s, Wonder Woman, controversially, was on the cover of Ms. magazine, sparking a discord among feminists and conspiracy theories that Ms. and Gloria Steinem were trying to destroy the women’s rights movement. A superhero born to be a feminist icon became a point of division.

And, while the Redstockings’ consipracy theory really was crazy, they did have a point about Wonder Woman. Who needs consciousness-raising and equal pay when you’re an Amazon with an invisible plane?

The most touching detail of the book is that Betty and Olive lived together following Marston’s death until Olive died in 1990. Their decades of family life, with Betty earning to support the family and Olive raising the children and writing articles for extra money, made the two women close. All four children considered both women to be their mothers. When the children finally found out the truth about the family, one son was angry about the secrecy, but the rest took it in stride.

Overall,  The Secret History of Wonder Woman has a lot of good history and facts. But the narrative structure is so difficult to follow that I really cannot recommend it. Lepore had unprecedented access to the Marston family and their documents, but unfortunately, that is not enough to overcome the reading issues. If you are interested in the feminist  influences on Wonder Woman and her history, it’s hardly worth trying to read.

Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, IMDB


Author: Lisa Fry

Freelance Writer & Editor. Book lover. Feminist. International development professional

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