se­cret his­tory

Har­vard his­to­rian Jill Le­pore digs deep into the story of Won­der Woman in an in­sight­ful new book. Paul Gravett finds out more

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she was about fight­ing for equal rights for women

As the chair of Har­vard’s His­tory and Lit­er­a­ture pro­gramme, Jill Le­pore has spent her life writ­ing about real world sub­jects such as slav­ery and the his­tory of pi­o­neer Jane Franklin. For her lat­est book, how­ever, she’s set her sights on some­one rather dif­fer­ent: Princess Diana of The­myscira – Won­der Woman.

What roles did Won­der Woman play in the strug­gle for women’s rights?

Won­der Woman de­buted in 1941 and fought for women’s rights. She fought for democ­racy, too, since su­per­hero comics in the 1940s were all about WW2. But as she was orig­i­nally con­ceived, she was fight­ing for equal rights for women. And as a mat­ter of his­tory, she was in­spired by, and based on, Bri­tish and Amer­i­can suf­frag­ists, fem­i­nists, and birth con­trol ac­tivists.

How did Wil­liam Moul­ton Marston’s re­la­tion­ships with the women in his life con­trib­ute to Won­der Woman? Marston mar­ried his child­hood sweet­heart El­iz­a­beth Hol­loway in 1915, but in 1925 a younger woman named Olive Byrne moved in, and they lived

as a three­some, rais­ing their chil­dren to­gether. Li­brar­ian Mar­garet Wilkes Hunt­ley also lived with them oc­ca­sion­ally over the years. Each was im­por­tant to Marston’s ideas about fe­male power and con­trib­uted to Won­der Woman. But Olive Byrne made a par­tic­u­lar con­nec­tion: her mother, Ethel Byrne, was ar­rested in 1916 for open­ing America’s first birth-con­trol clinic. Ethel Byrne was a nurse like her sis­ter, Mar­garet Sanger and they founded what be­came Planned Par­ent­hood. Won­der Woman’s Golden Age ex­ploits are in­fa­mous for fre­quent scenes of women in chains. How do you in­ter­pret Marston’s fix­a­tion? There are many in­ter­pre­ta­tions. At the time, crit­ics of Won­der Woman found the chains grotesque and de­mean­ing. One mem­ber of DC’s ed­i­to­rial board re­signed in protest over them. Marston in­sisted the chains were meant al­le­gor­i­cally: he in­tended Won­der Woman to be a sym­bol of the eman­ci­pated woman. To be­come eman­ci­pated from the tyranny of men, she had to be chained up by evil vil­lains (who, gen­er­ally, op­posed women’s rights) so that she could eman­ci­pate her­self. But he and many read­ers also found bondage ex­cit­ing. Still, in the 1910s and 1920s, suf­frag­ists, fem­i­nists, and birth-con­trol ac­tivists all used chains in their iconog­ra­phy. I think Marston in­tended to carry on that tra­di­tion. That it also meant some­thing else, though, is un­de­ni­able. What made Won­der Woman more than just a ‘damsel in dis­tress’? Damsels in dis­tress are stan­dard in present-day movies too. That doesn’t make them sen­si­ble or ap­peal­ing. Won­der Woman came from a dif­fer­ent tra­di­tion – of de­pict­ing women as Ama­zons, pro­mot­ing the idea that women are stronger than men, that love is stronger than brute force. Since Marston’s death in 1947, much of that has been lost. Won­der Woman be­came just a fe­male su­per­man, whose strength is force.

How do we make Won­der Woman rel­e­vant to­day?

We still need equal pay and equal rights, which she was fight­ing for in the ‘40s. I wish the orig­i­nal Won­der Woman were ir­rel­e­vant, but she is not. Jill Le­pore’s new book, The Se­cret His­tory Of Won­der Woman is on sale from 28 Oc­to­ber. She will be talk­ing about the book at the Bri­tish Li­brary on 21 Oc­to­ber.

The first lady of DC is still fight­ing the good fight.

Above: Aca­demic Jill Le­pore and her new book, which delves deep into the his­tory and real world in­spi­ra­tions for the fa­mous char­ac­ter.

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