THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN, by Jill Lepore. Alfred A. Knopf, 410 pp., $29.95.
"Now the world is ready for you," goes one of the lines in the funky, horn-heavy opening theme song of the TV series "Wonder Woman," which premiered in 1975. But the world wasn't quite ready for the unconventional particulars of the life of William Moulton Marston, who created the superhero 34 years earlier. In the spirited, thoroughly reported "The Secret History of Wonder Woman," Jill Lepore recounts the fascinating details behind the Amazonian princess' origin story.
Lepore, a professor of American history at Harvard, a staff writer at the New Yorker and the author of several books on U.S. political life past and present, seamlessly shifts from the micro to the macro in arguing that Wonder Woman is "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 making her case, Lepore not only digs deep into the life of Marston and those closest to him but also expands her focus to elucidate the political and cultural mores -- and the outliers -- of the decades her subjects lived through. Marston, born in 1893, was deeply sympathetic to women's rights; his wife, Elizabeth Holloway, who typified the "New Woman" ascendant in the early 20th century, started law school at Boston College in 1915, the same year she and Marston wed.
During the course of their marriage, the couple expanded to a threesome and sometimes a foursome. While teaching psychology at Tufts University -- one of Marston's several short-lived careers -- he fell in love with his research assistant on a study concerning "how women felt when they were tied up": Olive Byrne, the niece of the pioneering birth-control activist and sex educator Margaret Sanger. Byrne moved in with Marston and Holloway; the household would also include, during her periodic visits, librarian Marjorie Wilkes Huntley. Holloway and Byrne would each bear two children by Marston; Byrne was largely responsible for raising the kids, and Holloway, who, unlike her spouse, had a steady paycheck (she worked for Metropolitan Life Insurance), was often the family's primary breadwinner.
This nontraditional arrangement was kept secret -- a considerable irony, given that polymath Marston developed the first lie-detector test. But it was within this busy, unorthodox household, where Marston upheld a "hodgepodge of Aquarianism and psychology and feminism," that Wonder Woman began to take shape. Marston proudly claimed that his most famous creation was meant to be "psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who ... should rule the world." The superhero made her debut in December 1941, the same month the United States entered World War II. With her mandate to fight "evil, intolerance, destruction, injustice, suffering, and even sorrow, on behalf of democracy, freedom, justice, and equal rights for women," Wonder Woman not only battles Nazis but also aids (in the guise of her alter ego, Diana Prince) female department-store workers on strike over meager wages. A panel depicting this labor unrest is just one of scores that appear throughout Lepore's book, further amplifying the author's vivid prose.
After Marston's death from cancer in 1947, Wonder Woman, like the millions of her sisters who had worked outside the home during World War II, was forced to retreat deep into domesticity. Where each issue of the comic once contained a four-page installment devoted to biographies of "Wonder Women of History" -- Sojourner Truth, Marie Curie, Amelia Earhart and others -- post-Marston editions featured a nuptials-themed series called "Marriage a la Mode."
The icon was restored to her feminist derring-do in the early 1970s by the editors of Ms., some of whom, like Gloria Steinem, grew up reading the original comic; the superhero graced the first issue of the magazine under the banner "WONDER WOMAN FOR PRESIDENT." Yet her revival was brief, essentially ending in 1979, the year when both the last Wonder Woman TV episode ran and feminism's second wave began to ebb. As for the "troubled place of feminism" today, when so much of what Wonder Woman's spiritual foremother Margaret Sanger fought for a century ago is under attack, it's worth noting that in 2016, the superhero will finally make her big-screen debut. That movie, "Batman v Superman: The League of Justice," does not even bear her name in the title.