Review: Jill Lepore’s ‘The Secret History of Wonder Woman’

The Secret History of Wonder Woman. Jill Lepore. Knopf. 432 pages $29.95.
The Secret History of Wonder Woman. Jill Lepore. Knopf. 432 pages $29.95.

Since 1978, when Christopher Reeve made us believe that a man could fly, Superman and Batman have appeared separately in 13 live-action movies. In 2016, these polar opposites will finally meet, fight, and befriend one another in the controversially cast Superman vs. Batman: Dawn of Justice (Henry Cavill as Superman, Ben Affleck as Batman. I’m team Ben.)

But they will be joined by another enduring icon, Wonder Woman, who will be played (presumably) with the right mix of beauty and toughness by Gal Gadot, a fashion model who once served in the Israeli army.

After reading Jill Lepore’s book The Secret History of Wonder Woman, you will not be surprised that the Amazon princess has struggled so long to get a shot at the big screen. Hollywood is not the first boys’ club that has relegated her to second string. From the moment she debuted in December 1941, the same month as Pearl Harbor, Wonder Woman has embodied the hopes and challenges faced by her sisters in a male-dominated world.

A Harvard professor with impeccable scholarly credentials, Lepore treats her subject seriously, as if she is writing the biography of a feminist pioneer like Margaret Sanger, the founder of the birth control movement — which this book is, to an extent. Sanger was one of the inspirations for a sexually enlightened bigamist who thought the fledgling comic book industry could use a female superhero.

Wonder Woman was the idea of “Charles Moulton,” the pen name of William Moulton Marston, a Harvard-educated psychologist who claimed to have invented the lie detector test. Marston is a fascinating figure, part con man, part visionary; creatively self-destructive, he failed at everything he tried until, at age 48, he hit pop culture pay dirt. But Lepore’s achievement is to bring to the foreground all the women who had a hand in Wonder Woman’s creation, two of whom were married to Marston at the same time.

Despite their acquiescence in the arrangement, Elizabeth Holloway and Olive Byrne were intelligent and strong-willed. Holloway, Marston’s legal spouse, earned three degrees, including an LL.B. Byrne survived a terrible childhood; her mother, Margaret Sanger’s sister, abandoned her so she could join Sanger in the bohemian enclave of Greenwich Village. Marston met Byrne in college (he was her teacher). He gave Holloway an ultimatum: either Byrne moved in or he would move out. He was too busy being a genius, so Holloway paid the bills. Byrne took care of the kids.

But Lepore isn’t just interested in Marston’s unusual private life. Through extensive research and a careful reading of the Wonder Woman comic books, she argues convincingly that the story of this character is an indelible chapter in the history of women’s rights. “She’s the missing link in a chain of events that begins with the woman suffrage campaigns of the 1910s and ends with the troubled place of feminism fully a century later.”

In addition to Holloway and Byrne, who contributed to Marston’s plots, there was Alice Marble, the ex-tennis champ (and later World War II spy) who originated the “Wonder Women of History” feature, to teach kids about great women of the past. When critics like Dr. Fredric Wertham argued that superheroes were corrupting — Batman and Robin were gay, Superman was a fascist, Wonder Woman was a bondage-loving lesbian — Louretta Bender, a child psychologist, came to their defense. And when DC Comics stripped Wonder Woman of her powers in the 1960s, Dorothy Woolfolk was fired from her job as an editor for pushing to restore them.

Each of these women is extraordinary, in her own right, but in one case Lepore omits damning information. What about Louretta Bender’s tenure at Bellevue, during which she subjected 100 children, many of them misdiagnosed with schizophrenia, to shock therapy? Dr. Psycho was Wonder Woman’s arch-enemy, an evil scientist who wanted to enslave women. Lepore should have informed her readers that the children of Bellevue met their own Dr. Psycho, and he was wearing a skirt.

Wonder Woman will get her own movie in 2017, 38 years after Lynda Carter twirled into her golden tiara, gold-plated red bustier, and star-spangled blue satin shorts for the last time. Gadot should pick up Lepore’s book, to understand the breadth of this colorful legacy.

Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at Miami Dade College.