Jill Lepore: The Feminist and the Superhero
The Harvard historian Jill Lepore – prolific, impish, a super-mom, politically engaged and still professorial – is giving us the kinky inside story of Wonder Woman that you never suspected reading the old comic book. Lepore stumbled on it while she was researching a New Yorker piece on Planned Parenthood and its founder Margaret Sanger. It turns out that the man who invented Wonder Woman in 1941 – as a match for Superman – was related by common-law marriage not just to Sanger but to the birth control and feminist movements in their World War I heyday.
William Moulton Marston was a Ph.D. psychologist (and inventor of the lie detector), a bigamist by conviction and a female-supremacist in doctrine. He lived a radical bohemian life under one roof with two women and had children with both of them. Wonder Woman was Marston’s model of the new woman he thought should rule the world.
But when Marston died after World War II, Wonder Woman was domesticated and diminished. In other writers’ hands, Wonder Woman became a babysitter, a fashion model and a movie star in the 1950s. In Jill Lepore’s telling, Wonder Woman is a morphing mirror of the women’s movement itself.
WWII-era “Wonder Woman” panel, done by cartoonist H. G. Peter.
Right now, she says, that story is missing its happy ending — but where there are Wonder Women, there’s a way.