Wonder Woman’s Amazing Secret History

Posted on November 20, 2014 at 8:00 am

Copyright Knopf 2014
Copyright Knopf 2014

Historian Jill Lepore is one of my favorite writers and I am also a Comic-Con-attending fangirl, so I was thrilled to get a chance to hear Professor Lepore speak at the Smithsonian about her new book, The Secret History of Wonder Woman.

There are only three superheroes who have appeared for decades without any interruptions: Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. But like Superman and Batman, she has taken on many forms and cultural signifiers over the decades. She was way ahead of her time as a feminist symbol. She was from a matriarchal culture and exemplified independence and courage. But she was only permitted to join the Justice Society after a poll of comics readers, and, once she joined, she served as its secretary, sitting primly and taking notes.

Lepore’s focus was less on Wonder Woman as a character, a symbol, or a work of art but as the creation of an historic figure, one who was well known for his scholarship and invention, but who led a life of secrets that were reflected in his most famous creation.

Lepore considers her the “missing link” between feminism in the first half of the 20th century (women’s suffrage to Rosie the Riveter) and the second half (the rise of the women’s movement in the 70’s and the broader opportunities for women following the Equal Rights Act).

Wonder Woman was the creation of William Moulton Marston, a remarkably accomplished man who had both a law degree and a PhD in psychology from Harvard.  Lepore described details of his life which were reflected in the Wonder Woman character and storylines.  Marston was one of the inventors of the polygraph lie detector test, probably the inspiration for Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth.  Those captured by her magic rope cannot lie.  Marston was also a committed feminist.  While some Wonder Woman fans have have noted the superheroine’s frequent appearance in bondage, Lepore is the first to connect this directly to the images used by early 20th century feminists in their pursuit of the vote, birth control, and other rights for women.  Marston also lived with and had children with two women, his wife and a kind of “sister-wife,” who was the niece of birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger.   This arrangement allowed his wife to pursue her career while the children were cared for by the “other mother.”

Marston believed that comics had a great power to communicate and explicitly intended Wonder Woman to carry his message of female empowerment.  A story published in 1943 had her becoming President — a thousand years in the future.


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