Magazine

Women & Power

Wonder Woman’s secret history and surprising lessons

Jill Lepore, Harvard history professor and New Yorker staff writer, on her new book, “The Secret History of Wonder Woman.” 

Smithsonian Institution Libraries, Washington, D.C.

This article appears in the Oct. 26 issue of the Magazine.

Wonder Woman is such a touchstone of the ’70s, with the bathing suits and Super Friends cartoon, even though she actually debuted in DC Comics back in 1941. Growing up, were you a fan? 

No. She was certainly a big female icon in my childhood when Lynda Carter was on TV, but I wasn’t a comic book reader. 

Then why write a book about her

As a historian, I love to find the “unfound” thing. I had been working on the history of privacy, and I read about this guy, William Moulton Marston, known as the inventor of the lie detector and the creator of Wonder Woman [thus her truth lasso]. I was also working on an article for The New Yorker on the history of Planned Parenthood. I went to Smith College, which has [birth control activist] Margaret Sanger’s papers, and I kept coming across members of Marston’s family. Marston lived with Margaret Sanger’s niece, Olive Byrne [together with his wife, in an unconventional arrangement]. I was fascinated that connection had gone unnoticed by two really different groups: comic fans and historians of feminism. 

So what’s the big “secret”? 

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That Wonder Woman’s origins are quite different from those of other golden-age superheroes. She’s better understood in the long political history of the struggle for equal rights than in the much shorter cultural history of comic books.

Are you saying she was inspired by Margaret Sanger? 

Wonder Woman is a cultural formation whose origins have to do with specific women in Marston’s life: his wife, Elizabeth Holloway, Olive Byrne, and her aunt, Margaret Sanger. Marston’s the conduit for them. She’s really based on progressive-era suffragettes and feminists. 

At the end of the book, you wrote: “The fight for women’s rights hasn’t come in waves. The fight has been a river, wending.” What did you mean? 

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We have this popular way people think of feminism. There was this first wave with Seneca Falls that lasts all the way to 1920, when women are guaranteed the right to vote, and the second wave begins in the ’60s with The Feminine Mystique, the founding of NOW, and Ms. magazine. It leaves you to believe there is still water between 1920 and 1963, and that’s not true. Wonder Woman is the missing link between the first and second waves. It’s not a story about waves, it’s a story about continuity.  

Wonder Woman “ran” for president in 1943, and we may finally have a female presidential nominee. Yet you end up on a dismal note about how far we’ve come. 

Many women feel not that feminism has failed but that certain political and economic objectives have not been achieved, and many gains have been lost lately. Women and girls from 7 to 70 really adore Wonder Woman; many have an emotional or personal attachment to the character. Maybe that’s because we have so few female icons that are sources of strength and power — if you’re looking for a female superperson, there aren’t a lot of other choices. That’s not heartening. 

Lepore will speak at Radcliffe Institute’s Knafel Center in Harvard Square on October 30 at 4:15 p.m.; radcliffe.harvard.edu/events.

Related coverage:

- Book review: ‘The Secret History of Wonder Woman’ by Jill Lepore

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