Wonder Woman, who burst on the scene in 1941, is the most popular female superhero of all time. In her adventures, the star-spangled warrior princess hails from the Amazonian land of Themyscira. What do we know, though, about her real origins as a DC Comics character? And how did she evolve into a feminist icon over the course of seven decades?
Harvard historian and New Yorker writer Jill Lepore uncovers that tale—and the man behind it, William Moulton Marston—in her new book, The Secret History of Wonder Woman (Knopf). Lepore discovered that Marston’s interest in feminism began as an undergraduate at Harvard, where he was influenced by early women’s rights activists, beginning with the British suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst, who was banned from speaking on campus in his freshman year of 1911.
In the 1920s, Marston and his wife brought Olive Byrne, the niece of Margaret Sanger, into their home. Marston and Byrne together wrote a regular column for Family Circle in the 1930s, celebrating conventional family life even as they pursued one of extraordinary nonconformity.
No less fascinating is Marston's role as the inventor of the lie detector. Internationally known as an expert on truth, he lived a life of secrets—only to spill them on the pages of the Wonder Woman comics he began to write.
In her intellectual and cultural history, Leopore explains the mysterious origins of a wildly popular female superhero and connects the character and its creator to the movements and ideas that shaped the changing role of American women. Wonder Woman, Lepore argues, is the missing link in the history of the struggle for women's rights—a chain of events that begins with the women's suffrage campaigns of the early 1900s and ends with the troubled place of feminism a century later.
Lepore’s book is available for signing.