Regaining My Own Power After Reading The Secret History of Wonder Woman

By Monica Anderson

He wanted to watch Wonder Woman. So did I, but not badly. Not enough to carve out two and a half hours of my evening, any evening, to schedule the viewing. I didn’t know it then, but our relationship had drained me of my own power, and though I thought my aversion was to the superhero genre itself, in truth I was afraid of what seeing such a woman onscreen would reveal of who I had become, how little wonder I then possessed. The idea of a woman saving the world and maintaining her independence was almost too much to witness.

Then I remembered: I had a book. Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman, sitting right there on my bookshelf.

I had come across the title while researching feminist nonfiction reads for my undergrad thesis the year before, but ultimately I had decided it was not of the autobiographical variety that I sought to emulate. I added it to my long mental registry of books to read eventually, which is full of titles that sometimes float to the surface when I pass them in a bookstore but often live there, forgotten, unread, forever. 

A few months later, deep into the actual writing of my thesis, I was in Eugene at J. Michaels Books, browsing. And there it was in the sales section, $7.98, hardback. I read the reviews on the back, saw Alison Bechdel’s, and thought I would like to read it eventually. I buy books for less than ten dollars compulsively. Less than ten dollars is a frugal price to pay for a book. They are worth much more.

***

He asked, for the fifth or sixth time, when we would watch Wonder Woman

“After I read that book,” I said. “That one on my shelf.”

“When will you read it?” he asked.

I paused. I had just finished The Vagina Monologues. This was during my gap month in Portland, where I moved into an apartment with my boyfriend after graduating, but which I would leave again in a few weeks for two months to go to Kenya. I filled my days with job applications to dozens of nonprofits, dog-sitting long hours for little pay, and reading book after book as my preferred method of escapism. I was not ready to face the big questions floating around me, and books kept me distracted.

“Maybe I’ll read it tomorrow!”

The next day, I could not breathe in our apartment—forest fires filled the air with smoke, and we had no AC and no screens—so I braved one half mile of walking to reach the nearest tea shop, where I could spend $3.50 in exchange for air conditioning and several hours of loitering. I was productive there. I applied for jobs, I took care of things on my to-do list, I felt jazzed from my bubble tea. I didn’t want to go back to my apartment, back outside in the heat and the smoke, back to the life I had subconsciously begun to dread with my boyfriend.

So, I read. I opened the yellow, blue, and red book and read. The Secret History of Wonder Woman is three hundred pages, split into three parts; I intended to get through the first, then move on with my day.

In the opening pages, Lepore tells us that Wonder Woman has a magic lasso that forces out the truth. Her creator, William Moulton Marston, also invented the lie detector, and harbored many secrets. A woman hell-bent on the truth and women’s rights was created by a man with lies of his own? I was entranced. Had I looked deeper, I would have seen that I was desperate both for evidence that my boyfriend was worthy of redemption and that I was capable of escape. 

I ordered another drink—a peach kombucha—to buy more time. I did not stop reading until I got past page 100. The title of part one—Veritas—had promised me the truth, however complicated. Marston was inspired by Emmeline Pankhurst, a British suffragist who, in turn, had inspired other suffragists to chain themselves to an iron fence, demonstrating their political shackles. The Wonder Woman he created would eventually lose her strength only if she was bound in chains by a man. I could not yet acknowledge how trapped I felt by my boyfriend, but if this more than anything else could weaken Wonder Woman, some part of me must have known I was not alone. By then, I was enmeshed not just in what the book purported to do—tell the history of the character—but in the superhero herself. I needed to know more of how Marston, who always believed that women should and would rule the world, was inspired by the women around him, and also how the character he created might come out on top. But the tea shop was closing, so I was forced to pause the book and walk home in a kind of frenzy through the heavy smoke, which still felt apocalyptic, ducking into stores en route to reset my lungs.

Once home, I ate, suffocated. My boyfriend was still at work, so I fled to the apartment lobby’s air conditioning and read the rest of part two.

This section contained more details about Marston’s unconventional romantic and family life. He lived with both his wife, Elizabeth Holloway—who worked—and another woman, Olive Byrne, the niece of Margaret Sanger, who stayed home with all of their children. This was perhaps my first real exposure to the world of polyamory, which I would in a few months’ time bring up to my boyfriend as a possible solution to our relationship problems—the real problem being, I later realized, that I did not want to be in a relationship with him and his lies at all. The parts about the birth control movement were less pressing to me; I was twenty-two and confident in my methods. What I needed to understand was how this arrangement suited them, how it was feminist, and also how it was all sustained by lies to everyone but themselves. I remember reading feverishly, rushing through the parts about domination and submission in order to find the bits about their relationships, and what kind of truth existed beneath all the deceit. Perhaps, I thought, it was normal for a marriage to appear one way and feel drastically different on the inside. Perhaps no one truly had the kind of relationship my boyfriend had painstakingly presented to our friends.

***

That weekend, I pet-sat two of my favorite dogs, Harley and Annabelle. Normally, the nine-month-old Australian shepherd/Boston terrier Harley jumped on me upon arrival and spent the next several hours ringing the bell to go outside while refusing to actually pee once there. Meanwhile, Annabelle, a two-year-old miniature Australian shepherd/corgi, sat at a distance judging both of us—Harley for ringing false alarms, and me for falling for it. This time, the dogs knew I had a book to finish and miraculously slept until I finished part three.

According to the book, in the 1940s, the comic of Wonder Woman—the female superhero who fights for feminist causes—was more popular than the male ones. Lepore does not explain why exactly, but Marston believed that if so many boys enjoyed the comics, they must be yearning for a woman that strong. Likewise, he and his collaborators aimed to convince readers that independent women were essential to winning the war. Even though I knew the outcome, that in 2017 women had much more still to fight for, I perked up. Maybe I had missed something in history; maybe Wonder Woman had liberated all women for good. 

But in 1945, Marston contracted polio and grew too sick to remain the main writer, and the comic faced restrictions on what it could include. After his death from cancer in 1947, Wonder Woman’s livelihood fell to the hands of a misogynist chosen by DC Comics and not those, like his wife, who had understood Marston and his vision. The ones left in charge of Wonder Woman did not think women should rule the world, nor did the US after the war—the men returning from battle took women’s jobs, women’s pay was cut, and childcare vanished. Before, Marston’s Wonder Woman had nightmares about marriage; the new Wonder Woman fantasized about it. All at once, both Wonder Woman and feminism shifted away from the mainstream. Even Marston’s lie detector test was used for evil, to suss out and fire “homosexuals” in government jobs.

I was dismayed. Unknowingly, I had grown attached to this character, and to her creation. I had seen in her a hope for a different kind of existence when I felt so cornered in my own. I did not yet understand why or how I had gotten where I was, but I felt the chains welded to Wonder Woman’s bracelets as if they were mine. I had signed a lease with a man who had a few months prior pretended to be someone he was not in order to test my loyalty. Then, I had forgiven him. I would not be able to forgive myself for a long time. 

The tonal shift at the end of Marston’s story devastated me. Sure, he had been a man with plenty of his own darkness, and perhaps the incessant bondage of women featured in the comic suggested something sinister. But he had envisioned a feminist superhero long before even my parents were born, and despite myself, I needed her to come out on top as that, and not morph into a more conventional, oppressed woman. I feared that I was undergoing this change myself, but I was also in denial, and it took the periphery of a book about the story behind this superhero to plant the seeds of my own unbinding, even if it would take me another year to leave.

I only had the fourteen-page epilogue left. Then I heard the bell, a reminder that I was being paid to read my book. I took Harley outside, and this time he actually peed. A small victory, but not enough to distract me from the despair that was returning, the same despair with which I had begun the book to escape but was now a little stronger in the knowledge that even Wonder Woman could not save herself. Back inside, exhausted from a below-average caffeine intake and the weight of this reality, I dozed in and out of the words in front of me. Eventually, I managed to finish the epilogue. Of course, Wonder Woman’s history only became more complicated in the decades of second-wave feminism. I struggled to care as much for these details. I was dreading the return to regular life, made closer with every page, too much.

***

But I still had to watch the movie. Like my reading of the book, we completed it in two shifts: the first one and a half hours on Friday night, then the last hour on Sunday. It was interrupted, in fact, by a fight started by me. From the start, I did not like how Wonder Woman was depicted on screen. Gone was all the nuance of the book; in its place was an emphasis on war, and on a male love interest. This especially disturbed me. I was certain that this superhero, born from a world of only Amazonian women, would want nothing to do with men, and especially not a mere human man. And yet, the warrior was softened by him, by his existence. I bristled next to my own boyfriend. His request for my affection while we watched only upset me. I wanted him to see that I—that any woman—could be powerful and free on my own, that in fact his particular mode of “loving” me was holding me back, even stifling me. I wanted so much for Wonder Woman in the movie to be Marston’s original conception and not one of her many permutations. The fact that she even desired the man disgusted me, for I wanted evidence that I, too, could be free of this longing. I took all this out on my boyfriend, yelling not exactly at him but in his direction with a kind of anguish I had apparently been holding inside for months. He did not have much to say in response, and this frustrated me more.

In the movie, her love interest dies in the end. This was vaguely satisfying, but Wonder Woman still left her female utopia because of him. He took her out of the world of Amazon warriors and into an era where women are not equal. I couldn’t care less that she had in fact defeated the god of war, because I knew this had not happened in real life. The choice to set the story in a historical context, but to leave out all the truth of how that context treated women, unsettled me. It was neither fantasy nor reality. In the film, regular women did not rule the world. One super woman did, but only when inspired by a man. At the end of the second viewing, I did not have any fight left in me. I returned to the regular, decaying rhythms of my relationship.

Still, looking back, Lepore’s book did save me from my circumstances, if only for a little while. At the time, I was too disconnected from myself to realize how her words and the story were seeping into me. It was only years later that I could see why that book called to me when it did. Even if it took another year, I did leave my boyfriend. I did find myself again, and not because of any man. Lepore provided the truth, and I just had to remember how to believe in it—and myself—again.


Monica Anderson (she/her/hers) is a writer, educator, and runner. After a lot of traveling and wandering, she has settled for the moment in Corvallis, Oregon, with her partner and their cat.


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