The Secret History of Wonder Woman


Lepore, Jill. 2014. The Secret History of Wonder Woman. New York: Knopf.
The Secret History of Wonder Woman


A New York Times and National Bestseller and Winner of the 2015 American History Book Prize

"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. Like many illuminating histories, this one shows how issues we debate today were under contention just as vigorously decades ago, including birth control, sex education, the ways in which women can combine work and family, and the effects of 'violent entertainment' on children. 'The tragedy of feminism in the twentieth century is the way its history seemed to be forever disappearing,' Ms. Lepore writes. Her superb narrative brings that history vividly into the present, weaving individual lives into the sweeping changes of the century.” —The Wall Street Journal

“Lepore’s 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
“Lepore specializes in excavating old flashpoints—forgotten or badly misremembered collisions between politics and cultural debates in America’s past. She lays out for our modern sensibility how some event or social problem was fought over by interest groups, reformers, opportunists, and “thought leaders” of the day. The result can look both familiar and disturbing, like our era’s arguments flipped in a funhouse mirror….Besides archives and comics Lepore relies on journalism, notebooks, letters, and traces of memoir left by the principals, as well as interviews with surviving colleagues, children, and extended family. Her discipline is worthy of a first-class detective….Lepore 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
“Even non-comix nerds (or those too young to remember Lynda Carter) will marvel at Jill Lepore’s deep dive into the real-world origins of the Amazonian superhero with the golden lasso. The fact that a polyamory enthusiast created her partly as a tribute to the reproductive-rights pioneer Margaret Sanger is, somehow, only the fourth or fifth most interesting thing in Ms. Woman’s bizarre background.” —New York Magazine
“With a defiantly unhurried ease, Lepore reconstructs the prevailing cultural mood that birthed the idea of Wonder Woman, carefully delineating the conceptual debt the character owes to early-20th-century feminism in general and the birth control movement in particular….Again and again, she distills the figures she writes about into clean, simple, muscular prose, making unequivocal assertions that carry a faint electric charge…[and] attain a transgressive, downright badass swagger.” —Slate
“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 skillful at showing the subtle process by which personal details migrate from life into art.” —Christian Science Monitor
“Wonder Woman, everyone's favorite female superhero (bulletproof bracelets, hello!), gets the Lasso of Truth treatment in this illuminating biography. Lepore, a Harvard prof and New Yorker writer, delves into the complicated family life of Wonder Woman's creator (who invented the lie detector, BTW), examines the use of bondage in his comics, and highlights the many ways in which the beloved Amazonian princess has come to embody feminism.”—Cosmopolitan
“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…. Lepore has assembled a vast trove of images and deploys them cunningly. Besides a hefty full-color section of Wonder Woman art in the middle, there are dozens of black-and-white pictures scattered throughout the text. Many of these are panels from Marston’s comics that mirror events in his own life. Combined with Lepore’s zippy prose, it all makes for a supremely engaging reading experience.” —Etelka Lehoczky, 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
“This captivating, sometimes racy, charming illustrated history is one part biography of the character and one part biography of her fascinating creator, psychologist and inventor William Moulton Marston—an early feminist who believed, way before his time, that the world would be a better place if only women were running it….In the process of bringing her ‘superhero’ to life in this very carefully researched, witty secret ‘herstory,’ Lepore herself emerges as a kind of superheroine: a woman on a mission—as energetic, powerful, brilliant and provocative as her subject.” —Good Housekeeping
“This book is important, readable scholarship, making the connection between popular culture and the deeper history of the American woman’s fight for equality….Lepore restores Wonder Woman to her rightful and righteous place.” —The Kansas City Star

“Fascinating…often brilliant….Through assiduous research (the endnotes comprise almost a third of the book and are often very interesting reading), Lepore unravels a hidden history, and in so doing links her subjects’ lives to some of the most important social movements of the era. It’s a remarkable, thought-provoking achievement.” —Bookpage
“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
“An origin story far deeper, weirder, and kinkier than anything a cartoonist ever invented.” —Vulture
“Lepore restores Wonder Woman to her rightful place as an essential women’s rights icon in this dynamically researched and interpreted, spectacularly illustrated, downright astounding work of discovery that injects new zest into the history of feminism.” —Booklist (*starred review*)

“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…. 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 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 

"Hugely entertaining." --The Atlantic

Lepore has an astonishing story and tells it extremely well. She acts as a sort of lie detector, but proceeds through elegant narrative rather than binary test. Sentences are poised, adverbs rare. Each chapter is carefully shaped. At a time when few are disposed to see history as a branch of literature, Lepore occupies a prominent place in American letters. Her microhistories weave compelling lives into larger stories.” —The Daily Beast
“In the spirited, thoroughly reported "The Secret History of Wonder Woman," Jill Lepore recounts the fascinating details behind the Amazonian princess' origin story….[Lepore]seamlessly shifts from the micro to the macro….A panel depicting this labor unrest is just one of scores that appear throughout Lepore's book, further amplifying the author's vivid prose.”—Newsday
“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….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.” —Miami Herald

Last updated on 04/18/2016