The Secret History of Wonder Woman is an interesting read - it has great ideas about the history of American feminism, and why it's been grinding gears since the 1970s in many ways, but what it does do, and do well, is take a look at "First Wave" feminism, and at William Moulton Marston.
And who was he?
He was the creator of Wonder Woman.
And he was a very strange man. And his most famous creation reflects him in many ways.
William Moulton Marston headed off to Harvard just as the battle for woman suffrage was getting very heated in the US. Ironically, the women voters in those states which allowed it re-elected Woodrow Wilson in the exceptionally tight presidential election of 1916. (Without the female vote in a handful of states, America elects Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes instead.) Margaret Sanger and her sister, Edith Byrne, found the organization that would become Planned Parenthood. Alice Paul's American suffragettes are chaining themselves to the White House gates. NAWSA is leading the charge for the 20th Amendment - the woman suffrage amendment.
While a Harvard undergraduate, studying psychology, he invented a lie detector (based on blood pressure readings), but failed to patent it. He married the girl down the street, Elizabeth Holloway, and they both went to law school (he at Harvard, she at Boston University - because "those dumb bunnies at Harvard wouldn't take women"). After law school, he also got a Ph.D in psychology from Harvard, and went off to the academic world, where he taught psychology at places like Columbia and Tufts. (Elizabeth Holloway, who got the M.A., but may have done most of the work for Marston's Ph.D, went to work for companies like Encyclopedia Britannica, McCalls magazine, or Metropolitan Life Insurance.)
At Tufts he met Margaret Sanger's niece, Olive Byrne, and after she graduated, gave his wife an ultimatum: either they all three lived together as a threesome, or he would leave her.
She chose to stay.
Marston, who truly did think of himself as a feminist, certainly did not live in a matriarchy. One wife, Elizabeth, worked twelve hours a day in Manhattan, supporting the entire family. The other, Olive Byrne (they explained her presence as "their widowed housekeeper, Mrs. Richard"), raised the four children the women had by Marston. When she was not writing puff pieces about Marston in Family Circle. Marston, meanwhile, hung around the house, mostly in his underwear, only dressing up for the occasional client visit. (He had been blacklisted from academics, for a combination of his very esoteric psychological theories and the rumors about his sex life, and had then failed to make a success of himself in Hollywood.) His attempts to get the FBI interested in his lie detector only succeeded in getting J. Edgar Hoover to open a file on him.
And then, as the 30s turned into the 40s, he noticed that Americans were reading an insane number of comic books, and saw his opportunity.
And he created Wonder Woman.
The first female superhero. A feminist role model. And also a reflection of some of Marston's other interests - she's almost as interested in detecting lies as he was, for one thing. She's kind of kinky. (He got a ton of interesting fan letters.) And she was an enormous success.
She hit hard times, however, when Marston died in 1947. She was given to writers who either didn't know or didn't care what her backstory was, and were certainly not feminists. The strip's "Wonder Women of History" segment was abruptly cancelled.
By the late 1960s, she had been remodeled into a shadow of Emma Peel, and lost her superpowers.
And then she was reclaimed by "Second Wave" feminists, like Gloria Steinem. ABC television came calling.
Meanwhile, American feminism splintered, and 1972, and the launch of Ms. magazine, with Wonder Woman on the cover, was the high ground never to be recovered.
And, Lepore claims, that's all Wonder Woman's fault. Having set out to prove that Wonder Woman was molded by American feminism, and, I would say, having done so, she fails to prove (and doesn't really try) to prove that Wonder Woman then molded American feminism in her own image.
Like I said, she makes the argument, but presents no evidence that I would call substantial. Ms. debuted with Wonder Woman on the cover, yes. But that doesn't mean that American feminism was now being modeled on Wonder Woman. Frankly, Wonder Woman is a strong image (what American doesn't recognize her?), and that's what a magazine always wants for its cover - a punchy graphic that makes a statement.
Lepore provides almost fulsome detail about anything connected with Marston. He led a fascinating life. The material on Wonder Woman, and on American feminism, after Marston's death is almost perfunctory.
Lepore got access from DC Comics, as well as permission to use, copious numbers of illustrations from 1940s Wonder Woman strips. They make fascinating viewing.