Still looking for a present for the feminist bookworm in your life? Give the gift of the fascinating and kind of creepy history of Wonder Woman—the only female superhero with the long-lasting power of her male counterparts. Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman reveals the conflicting values of the superhero’s creator, William Moulton Marston, while exploring her cultural significance and complicated relationship with feminism.

On the one hand, Marston was influenced by iconic women such as Margaret Sanger - the founder of Planned Parenthood - and Emmeline Pankhurst;plenty of empowering feminist themes made their way into her stories. But Marston also chains her up with a weird frequency. Lepore notes that there are bondage scenes in every single Wonder Woman comic, usually on each page. In reference to one sequence, Lepore writes, “Quite how this story embraces women’s rights is difficult to figure. It’s feminism as fetish.”

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Not to mention, for a man who publicly claimed to be an advocate for women’s rights, his private life told a different story: Marston was a polyamorist with two women living in his home—one he revealed to the world and another, Olive Byrne, he kept in hiding (he had children with both, but Byrne’s were told their father passed away.) After getting fired from his first academic position for committing fraud, Marston became a professor at Tufts University, where Byne was a student. NY Times explains his scandalous affair eventually cost him his job, leading him to invent the ‘Love Meter,’ a lie detector test based off of subject’s blood pressure. Marston’s device brought us such valuable scientific results as brunettes are more romantically excitable than blondes, and in 1923, he pushed to have his test used for evidence in Frye v. the US. But the court’s ‘Bullshit Meter’ went off, and to this day, polygraph results have been considered unreliable and inadmissible.

Marston’s secrets make for an interesting story, and his bizarre values no doubt played a role in his vision of Wonder Woman. Looking at his standards, it’s not so surprising he lived with two women - no sole individual could possess all of Wonder Woman’s contradictory qualities. She’s strong but sexy, nerdy but beautiful, vulnerable but in control-- basically doing what women have been expected for years: everything, with the added pressure of trying to make it look easy. She’s set the unattainable standard based off of what Marston called his “strong feminine ideal.”

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The book is worth the buy not only because Marston is such a character, but also because Lepore rivetingly details Wonder Woman’s strong and complex connection to feminism while honoring her lasting presence. In a male-dominated world where she somehow found a place adorning mugs, underwear, and PEZ dispensers as frequently as Batman and Superman, any feminist will be excited to find out more about the unique icon’s captivating backstory.

Image via Word Press

Marissa is an NYC-based writer who loves feminism, doughnuts, and being outside. She's not a huge fan of writing personal bios, but she does love writing pretty much anything else. Read more of her work at marissadubecky.com.

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