When Stephen Gaskin passed away last July, his local paper eulogized him as a “tie-dye-clad hippie philosopher, a proud ‘freethinker’” with “crystalline blue eyes.” Those of my generation who are familiar with Gaskin know him as the founder of the Farm, the 44-year-old intentional community in Summertown, Tennessee, where Gaskin’s wife, Ina May, started a movement of authentic midwifery and female body-empowerment. The Farm has 180 residents today—in the early 1970s, between 200 and 300 people traveled to Summertown in a caravan of painted school buses to create it—and maintains a focus on green community. Beyond its Ecovillage Training Center, the collective’s furthest-reaching project is a “woman-centered” approach to childbirth. Last year, a doula in Santa Cruz who runs the blog Yogini Momma posted a TEDx Talk by Ina May and praised her as midwifery’s “grandmother guru.”

I e-mailed the news of Gaskin’s death to a friend from college, a professional nurse-midwife. She replied, “When I was training at the Farm it was fascinating to see how everyone treated him with such deference.” Gaskin, the commune’s patriarch and source of “spiritual revelation,” had been in a flexible group marriage when both he and a partner began to be sexually involved with Ina May, who was still married to her first husband. Gaskin would later institutionalize monogamy on the Farm. “We think of Ina May as such a powerhouse, but really Stephen was the cult leader!” my friend noted. “When we would eat dinner he would always be served first.”

What to make of a man whose lessons as well as beliefs, it would seem, were unabashedly feminist, but who lived a life that clashed with them? This is the question posed by Jill Lepore’s invigorating and perplexing The Secret History of Wonder Woman. Lepore is a professor of American history at Harvard University and a New Yorker staff writer. In 2013, she published Book of Ages, an astonishing biography of Jane Franklin Mecom, Benjamin Franklin’s youngest sister, that wondered what might have happened if Jane had been given, well, a room of her own. Pitting a founding father against his sister—“If he meant to be Everyman, she is everyone else”—Lepore contrasts the treatment by history of someone inducted into the national memory versus someone very similar (but female) whom memory has spurned. The incongruities begin with scant documentation—Jane’s letters were discarded, whereas Ben’s were saved; her house was demolished to make room for a man’s memorial—and Lepore uses these facts to throw Jane, and her gender, into relief. Married at 15, a mother of 12, far less educated, far poorer, and with far fewer chances: These were the realities of Jane’s life. It is impossible to know whether her genius might ever have matched Ben’s. Retrieving that possibility, for posterity and for Jane, is Lepore’s task.

Her new book is about a more recent, and more richly documented, moment in American history. Wonder Woman may not have been the first female superhero—for example, Bulletgirl, the inamorata of Bulletman, appeared earlier, in May 1940—but when she burst onto the comics scene in 1941, Wonder Woman was a sovereign figure, and from an explicitly feminist milieu. Secret History is in part a character study of her secretive, impressive, and terribly odd creator, William Moulton Marston, who boasted: “Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who, I believe, should rule the world.” In Lepore’s telling, Marston had a Forrest Gump–like ability to insert himself into many of the intellectual and political dramas of his day, in psychology, criminology, film, and advertising. His story gets a full airing here, but Lepore’s chief interest, as it was with Sister Franklin, is to spot the twisty gender dynamics in the life of a male public figure, and to name the woman’s work—or, in Marston’s case, women’s work—concealed behind the man. Lepore sees in Wonder Woman a “missing link” between the struggles of different generations of American feminists, as well as a lesson about women belittled and denied by circumstances and by men. For the historian, Wonder Woman is a tinderbox. But Lepore picks it up and carefully examines the parts: the flint, the steel, the stuff of American feminism and its potentially explosive discontents.

* * *

William Moulton Marston was born in 1893, in Cliftondale, Massachusetts, to a family hungry for a male heir. His mother had been one of six children, five girls and one boy, but her brother had died young. Marston’s grandfather, in mourning, erected a turreted medieval castle and set about writing the family history under the tallest of its crenellated towers. As a child, Marston had Sunday dinners at the castle, where his grandfather doubtless boasted of a lineage dating back to the Norman Conquest. (The Magna Carta bears the signature of a Moulton.) Marston was prized and showered with attention. “His mother,” Lepore writes, “detected signs of genius.” He was a “very clever child, unquestioned by his parents.”

In the eighth grade, Marston met Sadie Elizabeth Holloway. Like him, she had been born in 1893; unlike him, she was born on the Isle of Man, to a family brimming with male heirs: Holloway was the first girl in four generations. Her life, early on, was colored by what the world did to women. The mother of an Irish family in her neighborhood died from a perforated cervix after performing an abortion on herself with a wire. Holloway liked to pretend that she was a boy. She studied Greek, and favored Sappho, and was (sort of) Marston’s lifelong honey.

Marston went to Harvard and gravitated to the school’s newly founded department of philosophy and psychology. His professor, Hugo Münsterberg, who had been recruited by William James, was “notorious for his opposition to both female education and woman suffrage,” but all the same taught women at Radcliffe. Münsterberg was so taken with Marston that he hired him to assist in an experiment at the sister school, which involved “strapping girls to machines.” It was an attempt to detect deception, and it would lead Marston to what he, at least, might have considered his greatest accomplishment: the invention of the lie detector.

Holloway attended Mount Holyoke, the first women’s college in America. She and Marston both graduated in 1915, she sporting a short and forward-thinking bob. That September, Holloway became the first in her graduating class to get married. She took Marston’s last name—at his request—but didn’t like it: “We are stuck with either our father’s name or our husband’s, so choose the one you like best. There’s no such thing in this civilization as ‘your own name.’” Marston didn’t care for her first name (although she did, particularly “if you use its oriental spelling, Zaidee, the Earth Mother”), so Holloway went by “Betty.”

After the Armistice in 1918, Marston was posted to Camp Upton, New York, to treat victims of shell shock. The camp’s librarian, Marjorie Huntley, believed in reincarnation, psychic orgasm, and “love binding,” or “the importance of being tied and chained.” She and Marston were together for six months. Then Marston returned to Cambridge and got his wife pregnant. But first he told Huntley she could visit anytime.

Holloway and Marston both went on to law school. (Holloway, as a female student, was asked to leave the classroom when the course subject was rape). Soon, they started doctoral research in psychology. Holloway did plenty of Marston’s work; when he didn’t feel like giving lectures, she would deliver them. She also tried to find employment but struggled: Though women were gaining the right to vote, only 2 percent of lawyers in the country were female. In the jury process, too, women were less than welcome. To examine—and prove—women’s capacity to weigh evidence, Marston undertook a study of testimony. With Holloway’s help, he concluded that women jurors were just as competent as men. In fact, they were better—“more careful, more conscientious”—both as jurors and as judges.So there was Holloway and there was Marston—who leaned on Holloway—and there was Huntley, too, drifting in and out of the household, and restless. And then there was Olive Byrne. When Byrne walks into the picture, one sees with especially crisp coherence how Marston, that “very clever child, unquestioned by his parents,” grew up: by creating another nuclear family reluctant to question him. Marston’s science and broader proclamations about society busily trumpeted female empowerment, but at home women were diminished.

* * *

Lepore narrates the personal history of everyone in the Marston circle in great detail. With Byrne’s, the opening note especially sings: Olive Byrne was delivered by Margaret Sanger, and then the child was thrown away.

Olive was born in 1904 to Ethel, Sanger’s younger sister, and her husband Jack Byrne, who came home from the saloon one night, tossed the crying newborn into the snow, and went back to his drinking. Sanger, then a 24-year-old nurse, retrieved the baby and took her back inside. (Sanger had been tending to and even delivering babies since she was 8; her own mother had been pregnant 18 times over the course of 22 years and died at age 49.) When Olive was 2, her mother left, and she and her brother Jack (3 at the time) were carted off to an orphanage.

Olive may never have known of her mother and famous aunt, though, if their political views hadn’t landed them in legal trouble. In 1914, Margaret Sanger began publishing the feminist monthly Woman Rebel, in which she introduced the term “birth control” to the world. Sanger was indicted on charges of obscenity and scooted off to England, leaving her children behind with Ethel. She returned only when her 5-year-old daughter Peggy contracted pneumonia. When Peggy died, the charges against Sanger were dropped: Who’d want to prosecute a grieving mother?

Not long after, the sisters were arrested for distributing leaflets (in English, Italian, and Yiddish) at a birth-control clinic they’d started in Brooklyn. Ethel was tried first and, inspired by the British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, went on a hunger strike. Sanger wanted to save her, and she knew what public sympathy could do in a criminal case. So she went up to Olive Byrne’s convent school in Rochester, New York, and publicly (and falsely) announced that Ethel’s arrest had come in the middle of her preparations to bring her children home. Olive had never had a visitor before; as her biological mother became the first woman in the United States to undergo forced feeding, Olive beamed to learn that she had family. From upstate, Sanger persuaded New York Governor Charles Whitman to pardon Ethel if the latter pledged never to participate in the birth-control movement again. Sanger even agreed on her sister’s behalf—for which Ethel never forgave her.

Sanger’s second husband, billionaire Noah Slee, later paid for Olive to go to Tufts. There, Byrne became her fellow students’ source for contraception, as well as a sorority sister and “boyette”—meaning she cropped her hair close and practiced androgyny.

In the fall of her senior year, Byrne took a class with a new psychology professor, William Moulton Marston, who was investigating effective “sex stimuli.” Marston’s interest was in “captivation”: sadistic teasing and torturing. Byrne brought her professor to a “Baby Party”—a sorority event where freshmen dressed up like babies, blindfolded and bound, and upperclasswomen ordered them around while sophomores hit them with sticks.

The day that Byrne graduated—at a ceremony in which the American suffragette Jane Addams was given an honorary degree—she was photographed with her mother, her psychology professor, and his wife, who is seen holding her diploma. Byrne spent that summer living with the married couple: Marston, Lepore writes, “had given Holloway a choice. Either Olive Byrne could live with them or he would leave her.”

Holloway may not have wanted yet another woman grafted onto her marriage to Marston (recall that Marjorie Huntley had been the first), but she recognized the arrangement as, in her words, a “new way of living.” Lepore writes that Holloway thought it “might offer a solution to the bind she was in as a woman who wanted to have both a career and children”:

Elizabeth Holloway Marston, a New Woman living in a New Age, made a deal with her husband. Marston could have his mistress. Holloway could have her career. And young Olive Byrne, who wanted, more than anything, a family, would raise the children…. The arrangement would be their secret. No one else need ever know.

The unorthodox arrangement did solve Holloway’s bind: Right after giving birth in 1933—she and Byrne had been pregnant with Marston’s children at the same time—Holloway took a job as an assistant at Metropolitan Life Insurance, working for the vice president in charge of farm mortgages. And the arrangement would last many decades, its convenience and fluidity startling everyone. Holloway and Byrne continued to live together long after Marston died. But the extent to which Holloway actually chose to live this way is an unsettling question that hangs over Lepore’s book. Lepore observes that “much about any life is impossible to record. Every marriage, each love, is ineffable.” While banal, this is obviously true—and it’s perhaps the best answer she can muster. As every historian knows, there are limits to history: Can any of us divine exactly how free Holloway felt?

* * *

Marston was always a fabricator of stories. The year he started studying with Münsterberg, he also took up scriptwriting. Months before he graduated from college, he won the Edison Company’s scenario contest with Jack Kennard, Coward, a football tale. Marston used to say the Harvard football team had badly wanted him to join, which, Lepore writes, “was a lie.” But Marston did base his script on real-life incidents, she adds: “for all his study of storytelling, Marston only ever patched together his fictions from his facts.”

Marston’s attention turned back to movies in the late 1920s, especially after he was blacklisted from academia because of his unorthodox research: In January 1928, Marston, with Byrne’s help, hooked girls up to blood-pressure cuffs, then had them watch the climax of a Greta Garbo film. (He claimed that brunettes get aroused more easily than blondes.) That year, Carl Laemmle, the head of Universal Studios, took out an ad in The Saturday Evening Post for a psychologist, a “mental showman,” who would test the emotional value of stories for his studio. Marston got the job. He told a reporter that a favorable movie treatment involved making sure the main female character was depicted “as the leader every time. She controls and directs the love affair.” He highlighted the importance of the erotic in successful “emotional handling.”

The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America soon adopted a new morality code, and Laemmle’s son Junior hired a better film-vetter, so Marston found himself without a job. Marston and a partner established a new film company, Equitable. He had an idea for a movie called either Brave Woman or Giddy Girl, after Holloway or Byrne; the central question would be: “How can a woman love & yet make a living? How be economically independent & also erotically independent?” But when the stock market crashed, Equitable Pictures went down with it. In the aftermath, Marston taught, practiced law, and published a novel, but he floundered all the same; it was Holloway and Byrne who had to keep him afloat.

Marston—who had two children apiece with Holloway and with Byrne—had entered into this unorthodox arrangement so that one of the women could work and the other could raise their extended family. But Byrne told everyone that the father of her two sons was her late husband, William Richard. Of course, Richard was an invention. The month that Byrne said she’d married him, she started wearing a pair of wide-banded bracelets that she never took off—another kind of wedding circle. Marston and Holloway legally adopted Byrne’s children, giving them his surname; she relinquished her rights as a parent. The public story was that Byrne was a servant, the family’s widowed housekeeper.

At home, Marston once again did the naming, giving nicknames to the three women he was involved with, which were shortened once the kids started speaking: Holloway was “Keets,” Byrne “Dots,” and Huntley, who’d had a hysterectomy, became “Yaya.” In 1935, the family moved to a big house in Rye, New York, purchased with the support of Holloway’s parents. Holloway had one bedroom, Byrne another, and Marston slept in both. (Huntley had a room in the attic for when she paid occasional visits.) Holloway’s job at Metropolitan Life Insurance was the lucrative one; she often supported the entire household.

That same year, Byrne got a job as a staff writer at the women’s magazine Family Circle. She wrote as Olive Richard, and her first piece, which established the template for the rest, was a fawning profile of Marston—the inventor of the lie detector and “the most genuine human being I’ve met.”

* * *

In the late 1930s, comic books became a viral sensation; by 1939, nearly every child in America was reading them. Byrne’s brother Jack—with whom she and Marston and the four children spent summers—was a writer and editor of pulp fiction who eventually started printing comic books himself. But he and other publishers faced pressure from parents worried about what the new entertainment form might mean for their kids. Hitler was touching off a new war in Europe; might Superman be a fascist of the same sort?

In 1940, Olive Richard took to the pages of Family Circle to address this concern, asking the wise Dr. Marston about “comics magazines.” Marston offered a hearty defense of the medium, saying that they were, on the whole, good for children. The inventor of comic books, a former elementary-school principal named Maxwell “Charlie” Gaines, read Byrne’s article and hired Marston as a consulting psychologist for DC Comics. Marston’s wives, again, were boosting his prospects.

Marston told Gaines that “the comics’ worst offense was their bloodcurdling masculinity.” He proposed that the best response to the attacks on comics would be a female superhero. (This may have been Holloway’s idea—or Byrne’s.) Gaines agreed to take a chance on Wonder Woman, provided that Marston would write the strip himself. Marston assented. It would chronicle “a great movement now under way—the growth in the power of women.”

* * *

Wonder Woman was introduced in DC Comics’ All Star Comics #8, December 1941–January 1942, right as the country was entering World War II. The credit went to one “Charles Moulton.” Wonder Woman wore bracelets like Byrne’s—bracelets “fashioned by our captors,” the text reads, to remind women “that we must always keep aloof from men.” Byrne herself wrote the early scripts. And yet, despite the many female artists who could have illustrated the series, Wonder Woman was drawn by a man. She looks it, too: Uncommonly beautiful, Wonder Woman was dressed in a red, white, and blue costume (and very little of it) and crowned with a Miss America–like tiara. She was inspired by Esquire’s sexy Varga Girls, Lepore writes, “the suffragist as pin-up.”

Naturally, Wonder Woman got caught up in the debates over modesty, virtue, and children’s psychology. Bondage, in particular, proved a sticky subject. Hardly a page went by in which Wonder Woman wasn’t being gagged, chained, manacled, shackled, pinned, or having her eyes and mouth taped shut. And not just Wonder Woman; charming collegians and the ladies of Paradise Island were also tied up and tortured. As Marston told Gaines: “The secret of woman’s allure [is that they] enjoy submission—being bound.”

Wonder Woman, Lepore notes, “was a Progressive Era feminist, charged with fighting evil, intolerance, destruction, injustice, suffering, and even sorrow, on behalf of democracy, freedom, justice, and equal rights for women.” In one story, Wonder Woman discovers that the International Milk Company is running a racket, charging astronomical prices for milk, which has led to undernourished American children. She organizes a “gigantic demonstration” with thousands of poor mothers and kids taking part. In another tale, also based on real events, Wonder Woman strikes to help underpaid textile workers.

In July 1942, Wonder Woman became the first female superhero to get her own comic book. This was enough of a coup that Marston came out from behind the pseudonym; in a characteristically modest press release, he announced: “Noted Psychologist Revealed as Author of Best-Selling ‘Wonder Woman.’” He explained that Wonder Woman was intended as feminist propaganda—especially the “Wonder Women of History” centerfold included in each issue. This four-page feature was suggested by Alice Marble, a female tennis pro, who also made the selections; it highlighted women like Florence Nightingale, Joan of Arc, Sojourner Truth, and Madame Chiang Kai-shek and was distributed at public schools. Lepore writes, “It is difficult to think of another place, in American popular culture of that decade, as enthusiastic about the history of women’s achievement.”

By 1944, Marston was riding high: Wonder Woman had 10 million readers; he was writing a daily newspaper strip; and he was “flush with cash.” It was the apogee for Marston, and the beginning of the end. In August 1944, he, Holloway, and Byrne went on a date in Manhattan, to the Royale Theatre. It would be their last: Marston contracted polio, then cancer (though his family never told him about the latter, for fear of his violent temper). He passed the comic-writing duties to his very young assistant, Joye Hummel. Marston died on May 2, 1947. His obituary mentioned Holloway and the four children, but not Olive Byrne. Today, he is in the Comic Book Hall of Fame.

* * *

Not 25 years after Marston died, Wonder Woman was embraced by second-wave feminists. In 1972, a presidential-election year, Gloria Steinem and the cofounders of Ms. magazine—an offshoot of the National Women’s Political Caucus—selected her for the cover of its first issue. “Wonder Woman for President,” the banner proclaimed, exactly as it did on the cover of a Wonder Woman issue published in 1943. “Looking back now at these Wonder Woman stories from the ’40s,” Steinem said then, “I am amazed by the strength of their feminist message.” Ms. also published a reproduction of “Introducing Wonder Woman”: “With the beauty of Aphrodite, the wisdom of Athena, the strength of Hercules and the speed of Mercury, she brings to America’s women eternal gifts—love and wisdom!” In 1973, a women’s health collective in California published a newsletter with Wonder Woman on the cover wielding a speculum. Sex-positive, hell yes! That was Marston’s legacy. (You might see that legacy, too, in the Wonder Woman film from Warner Bros., slated for release in 2017. After reportedly searching for months for a woman director, the studio hired Michelle MacLaren last November, but she dropped out in April. Citing “creative differences,” the studio promptly hired Patty Jenkins, who had been slated to direct Thor [2013] before she and the studio split, also due to “creative differences.”)

Marston’s Wonder Woman had an extraordinary feminist message, and the way that it faded from memory in the years between Steinem’s childhood and adulthood—and again between the foundation of Ms. and our own worrying age—speaks to the pattern of amnesia that marks our civil-rights record. But Lepore’s book also leaves us with the disquieting sense that this civil-rights agenda was taboo in Marston’s own domestic space.

In 1937, the American Medical Association finally endorsed birth control, thanks to the efforts of Margaret Sanger (and her sister). That year, Marston, promoting a new book at a press conference on matriarchy, declared that women would one day rule the world. But his house was nothing like a matriarchy. At one point, in addition to six cats, one dog, and many, many rabbits, Marston’s domicile included what his former editor at DC Comics, Sheldon Mayer, described as “a lovely bunch of kids from different wives and all living together like one big family.”

Marston drank heavily and was known for flying into rages. His son once said that at dinners, the mothers were essentially the lawyers, and Marston the judge—although he was the least sensible. (The mothers would tell their kids, “It’s best to ignore him.”) Lepore writes that Marston was affectionate, “maybe too affectionate. Every night, he insisted that the daughter he had sired with Holloway enter his study, say, ‘Goodnight Daddy,’ and kiss him on the mouth. Every night, she refused. ‘For Christ’s sake,’ Byrne would say, ‘just run in there and kiss him quick and get it over with.’” Marston also forced his kids to take IQ tests and then ranked them. One night, angry at the dinner table, he yelled before everyone, “At least I can still get an erection!”

Near the end of the book, Lepore writes that Marston wanted to tell Byrne’s sons, Donn and Byrne, that he was their biological father. But “Olive Byrne refused. She threatened to kill herself if anyone told them.” This stings: Byrne, who had lusted for a loving family, found herself trapped in her own somewhere far from liberation.

* * *

Marston’s wives didn’t enjoy much professional opportunity, either. Seven months after her husband’s death, Holloway sent a three-page letter to the publisher of DC Comics. “Hire me,” she implored. “Remember I have known Bill since the age of 12. I suggested the original Lie Detector experiment and cooperated with him in his laboratory work at Harvard. My training is the same as his—A.B., Mt. Holyoke; LLB, Boston University and M.A., Radcliffe. The main difference is that I insisted that he complete work for a PhD which I was too lazy to do. Remember also that I have been editing all my life and have helped materially in the mechanical production of Bill’s books.” No dice. The editorial director of DC Comics told Robert Kanigher, who was given complete control over the comic, to “Take the old lady out for lunch.” Wonder Woman became someone else—alternately a movie star, a model, a lonely-hearts advice columnist, a babysitter, and someone who was just dying to marry her boyfriend. The “Wonder Women of History” feature became “Marriage à la Mode.”

After a bereavement leave, Holloway returned to Met Insurance. Byrne became her Aunt Margaret’s personal secretary. In later life, Sanger became obsessed with how she would be remembered. Among other things, she shushed up her connection to Wonder Woman. To try to cement her legacy, Sanger filmed a television interview in 1957. It did not go well. Her interviewer asked her: “Could it be that women in the United States have become too independent—that they have followed the lead of women like Margaret Sanger by neglecting family life for a career?” She died in 1966.

Sanger’s granddaughter, whose name was also Margaret Sanger, married Olive Byrne’s son Donn. It was she who finally got the truth out about Byrne’s fictitious husband, William Richard. As Lepore notes, “Keeping the boys’ father’s identity secret had been Olive Byrne’s idea; Holloway and Marston had opposed it but felt the decision was hers.” As for living as a threesome, that “had been Marston’s idea, Holloway said, insisting ‘that W.M.M. was 100 years ahead of himself’ and ‘that some day everyone will be living like this.’”

Holloway may not have wanted more women included in their marriage when Marston pushed it upon her, but years later she would write to her two adopted sons about it, detailing, situating, justifying. One wonders exactly what she said. But she told Margaret Sanger Marston that Olive Byrne never, ever wanted her sons to find out the truth, that Olive had “said if they tried to make her tell that she would take morphine that she has tucked away. And that would be the end of that.”

The way Margaret Sanger Marston saw it, there really had been “love making for all.” There’s beauty of a sort in the nonconformism of the Marston ménage, a new kind of nuclear unit. But Holloway did request that no one ever speak of the arrangement again; the wish may have been voiced to protect Olive Byrne. As for Holloway’s own feelings, Lepore won’t speculate: The historian refuses to speak on behalf of her subjects. But in recording those circumstances where they were less than free, she claims back the truth of the women who helped make Wonder Woman.