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The Secret History of Wonder Woman:

An Interview With Jill Lepore

From Michael Fleisher’s obsessively detailed Wonder Woman: The Encyclopedia Of Comic Book Heroes, Vol. 2 in 1976 (re-issued in 2007 & 2010) to Les Daniel’s ground-breaking Wonder Woman: The Complete History in 2000 which first revealed how her creator, William Moulton Marston, lived with both his wife and another woman, our Amazonian princess has been the subject of plentiful research and analysis. As part of her 75th anniversary this year, several further fascinating studies have also appeared in the last few years. One study in particular that has garnered much attention and acclaim is The Secret History of Wonder Woman (Knopf/Scribe), in which Harvard historian and New Yorker writer Jill Lepore digs deep into the story behind the superheroine’s unconventional, pro-feminist creator, William Moulton Marston. Lepore kindly answered my questions.

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

Wonder Woman, illustrated by Harry G. Peter [costume design, above], debuted in comic books at the end of 1941 when she came to the United States to fight for women’s rights. She ended up fighting for democracy, too, since superhero comics in the 1940s were all about the Second World War. But the character, as she was originally conceived, really was fighting for equal rights for women. She also plays a role in that struggle, as a matter of history, because she was inspired by, and based on, British and American suffragists, feminists, and birth control activists of the 1910s.

How did the special relationship between writer William Moulton Marston (family portrait above), the two women he lived with, and librarian Margaret Wilkes Huntley contribute to Wonder Woman?

Marston married his childhood sweetheart, Elizabeth Holloway, in 1915, but in 1925 a younger woman, named Olive Byrne, moved into their house, and they then lived as a threesome. Holloway had two children, and Byrne had two children, and they raised them together. Huntley lived with them on and off over the years. Each was important to Marston’s ideas about female power and each contributed to Wonder Woman. But Olive Byrne made a particular connection: her mother, Ethel Byrne, was arrested in 1916 for opening up the first birth-control clinic in the United States. Ethel Byrne was a nurse, and so was her sister, Margaret Sanger. When they founded that birth control clinic, they founded what became Planned Parenthood. After her arrest, Ethel Byrne went on a hungry strike and nearly died. Sanger’s family and Marston’s family were very close.

Wonder Woman’s Golden Age exploits are infamous for their frequent scenes of women in chains. What is your interpretation of the origins of Marston’s fixation? 

There are many possible and reasonable interpretations. At the time, critics of Wonder Woman found the chains grotesque and demeaning. One member of the comic book publishers’ editorial board resigned in protest over them, and the comics were also banned. Marston insisted that the chains were meant allegorically: Wonder Woman was intended as a symbol of the emancipated woman and in order to become emancipated from the tyranny and rule 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 certainly many of his readers also found bondage sexually exciting, as Marston writes about elsewhere. Still, this much is certainly true: in the 1910s and 1920s, suffragists, feminists, and birth control activists all used chains in their iconography and in their rhetoric. I do think Marston intended to carry on that tradition. That is also meant something else, though is, I think, undeniable.

Some argue that ‘damsels in distress’ were standard in action comic books of the Forties. What makes their portrayal in Wonder Woman different? 

Damsels in distress are standard in the movies of the 2010s, too. That doesn’t make them sensible, or appealing. They’re ridiculous. Wonder Woman came from a different tradition—a mainstay of the suffrage movement—the tradition of depicting women as Amazons, the tradition of promoting the idea that women are actually stronger than men, that love is stronger than brute force. Much of that has been lost in the re-imaginings of the character since Marston’s death in 1947. In later and more recent versions, Wonder Woman is just a female superman, whose strength is force. She was once different; she’s not much different any more.

What further insight or discovery about this Secret History would you add to a revised edition of your book?

I found an incredible trove of documents, after the book came out, that reveal a great deal I’d not encountered before. Most of it had to do with Marston’s relationship with his mother—something I had barely noticed when writing the book.

In 1971, Wonder Woman was chosen for the first issue’s cover of liberal feminist magazine Ms. (above, art by Murphy Anderson) and was later unofficially referenced on a satirical collage cover for Spare Rib magazine. What sort of Wonder Woman do we need today? How can she be made relevant and popular again?

We need equal pay and equal rights, which are things Wonder Woman was fighting for in the 1940s. So, I wish the original Wonder Woman were irrelevant, but she is not.

Posted: January 10, 2016

An edited version of this interview was published in Comic Heroes Magazine No. 25, October 2015.


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My Books

Comics Art by Paul Gravett from Tate Publishing

1001 Comics  You Must Read Before You Die edited by Paul Gravett

Comics Unmasked by Paul Gravett and John Harris Dunning from The British Library

Featured Books

The Secret History of Wonder Woman
by Jill Lepore

Wonder Woman: The Encyclopedia Of Comic Book Heroes, Vol. 2
by Michael L. Fleisher

Wonder Woman: The Complete History
by Les Daniels

Wonder Women
by Lillian S. Robinson

A Golden Thread: An Unofficial Critical History of Wonder Woman
by Philip Sandifer

Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948
by Noah Berlatsky

Wonder Woman Unbound
by Tim Hanley
(Chicago Review Press)

Empowered: The Symbolism, Feminism, and Superheroism of Wonder Woman
by Valerie Estelle Frankel
(LitCrit Press)