The Secret History of Wonder Woman
Like every other superhero, Wonder Woman has a secret identity. Unlike every other superhero, she also has a secret history. Drawing from an astonishing trove of documents, including never-before-seen private papers, Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore reveals the fascinating family story that sparked the invention of the most popular female superhero of all time. Delving into the life of Wonder Woman's eccentric creator, psychologist William Moulton Marston, Lepore uncovers her feminist origins: from the warrior princesses of the Amazon, to suffragists including Emmeline Pankhurst, and the women Marston shared his life with - his wife and his mistress. The Secret History of Wonder Woman is at once a riveting work of pop-culture history, and a crucial insight into the struggle for women's rights in the twentieth century and the troubled place of feminism today.
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- Paperback | 432 pages
- 129 x 198 x 28mm | 435g
- 13 Aug 2015
- Scribe Publications
- Carlton North, Australia
- UK edition with new afterword
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'All superheroes have strange myths of origin, but the politically and erotically charged back-story of Wonder Woman outstrips any comic book. Jill Lepore unmasks the comic-strip heroine as the strange daughter of early 20th-century women's suffrage and the bondage-fixated imagination of William Moulton Marston, a hucksterish psychologist who invented the lie-detector test and lived in a covert threesome with his wife and girlfriend ... A startling and intelligent double biography.' -- James McConnachie Sunday Times 'The book I read most eagerly and discussed most avidly in 2014 was The Secret History of Wonder Woman ... Lepore is among the most productive, intellectually invigorating and surprising cultural critics in the US' -- Elaine Showalter Times Literary Supplement 'Books of 2014' 'In pursuit of Wonder Woman, Jill Lepore has tackled archives, interviewed contemporaries and dug through court transcripts, college records, the literature of the early 20th-century suffragism and the annals of Wonder Woman and her rivals. The result is a tour de force.' -- Helen DeWitt Literary Review 'Jill Lepore's obsessively researched book on Wonder Woman, the four-color embodiment of the women's rights movement, reveals that the life of the character's creator, Dr. William Marston - inventor of the lie detector, charming crank, ardent feminist and secret polygamist - was waaay more colorful than any comic book superhero. Suffering Sappho!' -- Art Spiegelman, author of Maus 'Hugely entertaining ... Lepore teases out [connections] between Wonder Woman, the early-20th-century women's movement, and Marston's fascinating life and odd psyche, in which the liberation of women somehow got all mixed up with bondage and spanking.' The Atlantic 'An absolutely unputdownable book. The life history of polymath charlatan and/or genius (I couldn't ever decide) William Moulton Marston, who worked his way through law, movie scenarios, lie detection, menages a trois, free love, BDSM and polygamy before creating the first feminist super-person had me saying "wow" practically every other page. And that's not even mentioning the tough-as-nails women he exalted, lifted from and, uh, shared who make up the molten core of this newly-revealed story. Rocketing from the suffragism of the 1910s to the ERA of the 1970s on a wave of home-spun pop culture righteousness, this story's head-spinning weirdness ultimately makes you question your own accomplishments, aims, and - almost like a great modern novel - your real motives.' -- Chris Ware, author of Building Stories and Jimmy Corrigan 'All credit to Jill Lepore for simultaneously rescuing Wonder Woman from indifference, establishing her as an expression of first-wave feminism and introducing her creator, who must be one of the more repellent individuals ever to call himself a feminist ... Terrific reading.' -- Catherine Bennett The Observer 'I love writers (and, indeed superheroines) who balance muscularity with intellect, surface charisma with depth, passion with politics. Lepore's achievements are even more likely to pass into greatness and myth than Wonder Woman's, so when the two of them meet, as they do here in the pages of a book, it's a thrilling adventure.' -- Bidisha 'Seamlessly combining rigorous scholarship and riveting readability, this richly rewarding book illuminates the histories of a problematic comics icon. A must-read.' -- Alex Summersby SFX Magazine 'More than a treat for comic fans, Lepore's superb book is for anyone interested in the social history of America.' -- Martin Gray Scotland on Sunday 'What Lepore does so well is to show how Wonder Woman's career mirrored the hopes, progress, and eventual disappointments of the American women's movement in the 20th century ... There's a new Wonder Woman movie coming in 2017. If Lepore's "secret history" has proved one thing, it's that at least so far each era has gotten the Wonder Woman it deserves.' -- Buzzy Jackson The Boston Globe 'This book is several things at once: a history of Wonder Woman's creator, Marston; a reflection on the themes underpinning the comic; and an exploration of how it was influenced by the early women's suffrage and reproductive rights movements ... Where [The Secret History of Wonder Woman] shines is in laying bare how explicitly political the comic book was always intended to be.' -- Helen Lewis New Statesman 'Enthralling ... It is hard to do justice to the many layers of this wonderful book. Meticulously detailed and lovingly constructed, it is part biography, part social history, part detective story. Above all, it is a portrait of an extraordinary family - and the women who made the man who made Wonder Woman.' -- Jemima Lewis Daily Mail 'Cultural history doesn't get more enthralling.' -- Laura Frost Times Higher Education Supplement 'Books of 2014' 'A meticulously researched account on the life and influences of the female superhero's eccentric male creator.' -- Emma Jacobs Financial Times 'This eye-opening cultural history delves into the marvelously eccentric life of William Moulton Marston: psychologist, early feminist, inventor of the lie detector, sexual non-conformist and creator of Wonder Woman ... An extraordinary story, very well told.' -- Caroline Sanderson The Bookseller 'Non Fiction Book of the Month December 2014' 'Ms. Lepore's lively, surprising and occasionally salacious history is far more than the story of a comic strip. The author, a professor of history at Harvard, places Wonder Woman squarely in the story of women's rights in America - a cycle of rights won, lost and endlessly fought for again ... Her superb narrative brings that history vividly into the present, weaving individual lives into the sweeping changes of the century.' Wall Street Journal 'The Secret History of Wonder Woman is as racy, as improbable, as awesomely righteous, and as filled with curious devices as an episode of the comic book itself. In the nexus of feminism and popular culture, Jill Lepore has found a revelatory chapter of American history. I will never look at Wonder Woman's bracelets the same way again.' -- Alison Bechdel, author of Fun Home 'Wonderfully vivid ... Intertwining biography, history and fiction, this is about much more than a comic book character.' Prospect 'The Secret History of Wonder Woman is the fullest and most fascinating portrait ever created about the complicated, unconventional family that inspired one of the most enduring feminist icons in pop culture ... In [Lepore's] hands, The Secret History of Wonder Woman is its own magic lasso, one that compels history to finally tell the truth about Wonder Woman - and compels the rest of us to behold it.' Los Angeles Times "The secret identity and ironic origin of Wonder Woman, gleefully revealed here, lie less in comic book fantasy than in the racy life of her creator and the history of women's liberation.' The Times 'Lepore, a Harvard historian, is the first scholar to have full access to the Marston family papers and she mines these to marvellous effect. She also situates Wonder Woman's story in multiple historical contexts, especially that of twentieth-century women's history. Wonder Woman, she finds, was the bridge between the originary feminism of the 1900s and the modern women's movements beginning in the 1960s. Where others have seen only kinky chains, she perceives direct connections to earlier feminist images of fettered women overcoming social and political restraints ... For Lepore the real superhero, here, is that of her own field, History ... Lepore notes that "history raises questions about the nature of truth", and that the historian's diligent sifting through evidence is more effective in distinguishing fact from fiction than Marston's lie detector and Wonder Woman's lasso ... The Secret History of Wonder Woman is an exemplary case by a model practitioner.' -- Michael Saler Times Literary Supplement 'What Lepore seeks to do here is tell the story of women's experience in the 20th century through this pop-culture icon ... A cracking narrative.' -- Louise Jury Independent 'Lepore's discipline is worthy of a first-class detective ... [The Secret History of Wonder Woman] convinces us that we should know more about early feminists whose work Wonder Woman drew on and carried forward ... A key spotter of connections, Lepore retrieves a remarkably recognizable feminist through-line, showing us 1920s debates about work-life balance, for example, that sound like something from The Atlantic in the past decade.' New York Review of Books 'Part detective fiction, part drama, part biography, but mostly an utterly gripping read.' -- Giulia Miller Times Higher Education Supplement 'Lepore's voice is fresh, clear and often cheeky ... This is a truly gorgeous book - beautiful to have and to hold, with lovely little black-and-white photos on most pages - as well as a sumptuous colour cartoon section. It is brilliantly written and splendidly researched.' -- Julie Burchill Spectator 'The Marston family's story is ripe for psychoanalysis. And so is The Secret History, since it raises interesting questions about what motivates writers to choose the subjects of their books. Having devoted her last work to Jane Franklin Mecom, Benjamin Franklin's sister, Lepore clearly has a passion for intelligent, opinionated women whose legacies have been overshadowed by the men they love. In her own small way, she's helping women get the justice they deserve, not unlike her tiara'd counterpart ... It has nearly everything you might want in a page-turner: tales of S&M, skeletons in the closet, a believe-it-or-not weirdness in its biographical details, and something else that secretly powers even the most "serious" feminist history - fun.' Entertainment Weekly 'Not just for serious comics historians, The Secret History Of Wonder Woman is also a must-read for anyone interested in feminist or utopian literature.' -- Andrea Battleground A.V. Club 'Deftly combines biography and cultural history to trace the entwined stories of Marston, Wonder Woman, and 20th-century feminism ... Lepore - a professor of American history at Harvard, a New Yorker writer, and the author of Book of Ages - is an endlessly energetic and knowledgeable guide to the fascinating backstory of Wonder Woman. She's particularly skilful at showing the subtle process by which personal details migrate from life into art.' Christian Science Monitor 'In the spirited, thoroughly reported The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Jill Lepore recounts the fascinating details behind the Amazonian princess' origin story.' Newsday 'A wonderfully entertaining study.' Simple Things 'Jill Lepore's generously illustrated The Secret History of Wonder Woman impressively links the iconic superhero's 1941 creation by William Moulton Marston (also the inventor of the lie detector) both to the aims of mid-twentieth-century feminism and to the influential Marston family's deep domestic intrigues.' Elle 'A rigorous, unflinching, and long-overdue appraisal ... [Lepore] distils the figures she writes about into clean, simple, muscular prose, making unequivocal assertions that carry a faint electric charge.' -- Glen Weldon Slate Kirkus 'Nonfiction Books of the Year 2014' 'Few historians handle weirdness as deftly or thoughtfully as Lepore ... [Her] brilliance lies in knowing what to do with the material she has. In her hands, the Wonder Woman story unpacks not only a new cultural history of feminism, but a theory of history as well.' New York Times Book Review 'The Secret History of Wonder Woman relates a tale so improbable, so juicy, it'll have you saying, "Merciful Minerva!" ... An astonishingly thorough investigation of the man behind the world's most popular female superhero.' NPR 'If it makes your head spin to imagine a skimpily clad pop culture icon as (spoiler alert!) a close relation of feminist birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, then prepare to be dazzled by the truths revealed in historian Jill Lepore's The Secret History of Wonder Woman. The story behind Wonder Woman is sensational, spellbinding and utterly improbable. Her origins lie in the feminism of the early 1900s, and the intertwined dramas that surrounded her creation are the stuff of pulp fiction and tabloid scandal ... It took a super-sleuth to uncover the mysteries of this intricate history, hidden from view for more than half a century. With acrobatic research prowess, muscular narrative chops and disarming flashes of humor, Lepore rises to the challenge, bringing to light previously unknown details and deliberately obfuscated connections.' San Francisco Chronicle 'On the one hand, the story [The Secret History of Wonder Woman] relates has more uplift than Wonder Woman's invisible airplane or her eagle-encrusted red bustier. It's a yea-saying tale about how this comic book character, created in 1941, remade American feminism and had her roots in the ideas and activism of Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood. On the other hand, The Secret History of Wonder Woman is fundamentally a biography of Wonder Woman's larger-than-life and vaguely creepy male creator, William Moulton Marston ... [Lepore] fully tells Marston's history for the first time, as well as the complete history of how so many crisp feminist ideas made their way into Wonder Woman comics. It's complicated material that she capably explores.' New York Times 'An astonishing story told extremely well.' -- Tim Arnold-Forster Daily Beast 'A fascinating and eclectic study ... Lepore has added to our understanding of an iconic literary character ensconced deep within the mythology of our modern society; but more importantly she has used this character to shape a new understanding of that society's own history ... Her research is surprising not only because it reveals what we did not know about Wonder Woman, but because it underscores what we did not know about our own history.' Pop Matters 'This wham-bang-thank-you-superma'am book is thrilling, amazing, unexpectedly weird and right-on righteous!' -- Iain Finlayson Saga Magazine NPR's Best Books of 2014 Entertainment Weekly Best Nonfiction Books of the Year 2014 Barnes and Noble's Top Books for the Holiday Season Amazon's Best Books of the Month 'Lepore's study of Wonder Woman, feminism and the strange Marston is riveting.' The Telegraph 'A spectacularly detailed biography of both the comic book superhero and her creator, psychologist and inventor of the lie detector, William Moulton Marston ... Both have riveting stories which Lepore tells with the same effusive energy and excitement of the comic strip.' Daily Mail 'A fascinating foray into American popular culture.' -- Simon Shaw Mail on Sunday 'Lepore meticulously unpicks Wonder Woman's origins to reveal there's more to her backstory than an Amazonian creation myth ... Underneath the intriguing social history, this is a story of human flaws and foibles, with Wonder Woman standing as testament to the pitfalls and pleasures of chasing a dream.' -- Victoria Segal The Guardian
About Jill Lepore
Jill Lepore is a professor of American history at Harvard University and a staff writer at The New Yorker. Her books include Book of Ages, a finalist for the National Book Award; New York Burning, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; The Name of War, winner of the Bancroft Prize; and The Mansion of Happiness, which was short-listed for the 2013 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.