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