The Secret History of Wonder Woman Jill Lepore knopf 2014The Secret History of Wonder Woman

Jill Lepore
Alfred A. Knopf
October 28, 2014

**Disclaimer: I received this copy from the publisher for an honest review

I read the Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore a few months back and have been struggling with this review ever since. It’s not that I don’t have anything to say because I do. I have A LOT to say. It’s just that I’ve been approaching this book review from an “essayist” perspective. I wanted to write this sweeping and grand analysis of the book, its criticisms and its role in not just the comics sphere but also in the history of feminism. In doing this, I removed myself from the equation and haven’t asked what I thought about it on a personal level because that’s where it hooked me.

I didn’t know who Wonder Woman was until I was nine years old and she appeared in the first episode 2001’s Justice League. To be fair, I didn’t know anyone aside from Batman and Superman but given the significance of the character as a feminist icon, it’s a bit surprising looking back. Is it though? Feminism eluded me as a kid not because my parents were opposed to the idea of empowering a young woman but because they didn’t verbalize it with that particular word. It’s a powerful word and words are keepers of history. It was a history that I wasn’t privy to until I was taught The Persons Case in my Canadian history class in middle school. In high school, I was taught FEM-I-NI-SM. Distorted by misandry, I held onto that version until my first year of university. My tutorial leader had asked us to raise our hands if we identified as a fem-i-nist. I didn’t raise mine. I discovered that day the fem-i-ni-sm in my head was disjointed. Fem-i-ni-sm was a funhouse mirror reflection that started to shift into Feminism I live by today.

Feminism: The Social, Economic and Political Equality Between The Sexes
The Secret History of Wonder Woman. Jill Lepore. Alfred A. Knopf. October 24, 2014. Harry G. Peter Sketches with William Moulton Marston notes.

1941 Sketches of Wonder Woman by Harry G. Peter

The Secret History of Wonder Woman is the story of Wonder Woman’s birth and impact woven throughout personal history and feminist history. I always knew about the polygamous relationship between William Moulton Marston, Elizabeth Holloway Marston and Olive Byrne but actually delving into the relationship–the shifting gender dynamics, the queer undertones (although never definitively stated once and for all), the deep love between the three and for their children–and finding out about Marjorie Wilkes Huntley added a new layer to it. I was personally fascinated in how feminism (more specifically Margaret Sanger) influenced William Moulton Marston into the creation of Wonder Woman and how Wonder Woman served as an inspiration to the feminists of the 1960s and beyond. Probably the biggest revelation (there were plenty in this book) would have to be the women involved in the fledgling comics industry in the late 1930s and 1940s.

  • Fiction House was a pulp magazine where Olive Byrne’s brother, Jack Byrne, worked as an editor. It mostly published detective stories and westerns but also featured strong heroines and its most well known female led title was Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, created by Will Eisner and S. M. Iger. Fiction House was also the only comics publisher at the time that employed more than twenty female artists while other publishers weren’t hiring any.
  • Over at DC, you had Alice Marble (an Associate Editor for a short time) who created the Wonder Women of History that celebrated the lives of real heroic women and accompanied the earlier issues of Wonder Woman.
  • DC’s first female editor was Dorothy Roubicek who is credited with coming up with Kryptonite while working on Superman. She started working on Wonder Woman when the character joined the Justice Society.
  • Lauretta Bender was a senior psychiatrist at Bellevue Hospital and studied the effects of comics on children’s behaviours. She was on the opposite side of Frederick Wertham during the Senate Subcommittee hearings that ultimately led to Comics Code. She argued that comics had a positive effect on children.
  • Joye E. Hummel was a student of Marston’s who was hired to help him write slang and when he fell ill, she typed up his scripts before writing her own for Wonder Woman.

The Secret History of Wonder Woman is a fabulous book that everyone should read. As someone who would rather escape into other worlds than read non-fiction, I couldn’t put this book down. I have a newfound respect for the character and the nine year old me would be very proud.