Hear Her Roar

Harvard history prof and New Yorker scribe Jill Lepore gives the story behind a superheroine.


The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore

Published by Knopf, 432 pages, $30

Interestingly, it was a man who conceived Wonder Woman. Creator William Marston was a quirky psychologist and lawyer who taught at Tufts, consulted in Hollywood and delivered feminist declarations about women’s rights and superior strengths. He also developed the lie detector test—fascinating, given the elaborate lies in his domestic life this book reveals.

With his actual wife, Elizabeth Holloway, Marston had two children. Then Olive Byrne, niece of radical birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, bore him two more, claiming an imaginary man as their father. They all lived together, and the truth of the trio’s cozy arrangement was, incredibly, kept secret. In one almost-amusing deception, Byrne actually interviewed Marston for Family Circle, at their own home, pretending they’d never met!

In 1942, the Wonder Woman comic introduced a ferociously bold Amazon, wielding a magic lasso and blazing with assertions about women’s power. Lepore notes inspirations for her style, like the theatrical rebelliousness of Sanger, who, when banned from lecturing in Boston, appeared on stage gagged while a statement was read on her behalf: “It silences me, but it makes millions of others talk.”

Wonder Woman often appears in bondage, too. Sometimes she’s powerfully snapping off chains labeled “man’s superiority,” “prejudice” and “prudery,” while at other times her shackles seem to represent love bonds in a decidedly kinky spirit. Peppered with panels from the comics, Lepore’s story whirls about, weird and wonderful.

From page 196: Peter got his instructions: draw a woman who’s as powerful as Superman, as sexy as Miss Fury, as scantily clad as Sheena the jungle queen, and as patriotic as Captain America.

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