Feb. 22, 2016
An interview with Jill Lepore, author of ‘The Secret History of Wonder Woman,’ ahead of her VCU lecture
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“The Secret History of Wonder Woman,” Jill Lepore’s riveting exploration of the creation and history of Wonder Woman, touches on a wide range of characters and topics beyond the pages of the superhero’s long-running comic books. Chief among them is William Moulton Marston, the character’s eccentric creator, but the book also tackles psychology, medicine, the American family, Planned Parenthood, the lie detector test, the women’s suffrage movement, comic book culture and much more.
The result is a book that the Los Angeles Times called “its own magic lasso, one that compels history to finally tell the truth about Wonder Woman – and compels the rest of us to behold it.” Alison Bechdel, the author of “Fun Home,” among other works, said, “In the nexus of feminism and popular culture, Jill Lepore has found a revelatory chapter of American history. I will never look at Wonder Woman’s bracelets the same way again.”
This year, Virginia Commonwealth University selected “The Secret History of Wonder Woman” as the inaugural selection of the university’s Common Book program, which encourages the entire VCU community to read a single book and attend conversations, events and other learning opportunities surrounding the book throughout the academic year. The Common Book program is an expansion of the summer reading program VCU launched in 2006.
Lepore is visiting campus Feb. 24-25 to meet with students, faculty and staff to discuss her book, highlighted by a public lecture on Feb. 24 at 4 p.m. in the Lecture Hall (room 303) of Cabell Library. The event will be followed by a book sale and signing and a reception. The event is free, but registration is requested.
Lepore is a staff writer for The New Yorker and a professor of American history at Harvard University. The author of nine books, Lepore was a finalist for the National Book Award for “Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin” and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for “New York Burning.” She answered some questions from VCU News ahead of her visit.
What about the story of Wonder Woman captured your attention and inspired you to investigate more closely her "secret history"?
I didn’t set out to write about Wonder Woman. I was working on other projects, a paper for Yale Law School on the history of evidence, and a New Yorker essay about the conflict over Planned Parenthood, when I kept bumping into this guy, William Moulton Marston. He helped invent the lie detector in 1913, when he was an undergraduate at Harvard. And in 1925, when he was teaching psychology at Tufts, he fell in love with a student of his, a woman named Olive Byrne, whose mother, Ethel Byrne, founded what became Planned Parenthood with her sister, Margaret Sanger, in 1916. Well, it happened that much later, in 1941, Marston (along with the women in his life) created Wonder Woman. So I got fascinated by what ties all these very different things together.
Why has Wonder Woman endured as a feminist icon and do you think the public perception of her matches the way she has been portrayed in comics, movies and TV shows? You write that "Wonder Woman remade feminism, which hasn't been altogether good for feminism." Can you elaborate?
Wonder Woman is often understood as a creation of the 1940s but really her origins lie in the 1910s, and in the birth-control, suffrage, and early feminist movements.
Wonder Woman is often understood as a creation of the 1940s but really her origins lie in the 1910s, and in the birth-control, suffrage, and early feminist movements. (The word “feminism” first came into common usage around 1910.) She was resurrected in late 1960s and early 1970s during the women’s liberation movement. The character has deep ties to American political history. Much of this is missed in her representation in popular culture and in fact her origins have been a secret from the start. As to whether the character has been good for feminism, the point is mainly that she is inseparable from it.
Was there something in particular that surprised you as you delved into this topic? How did your perception of the Wonder Woman character evolve during the course of your research and writing?
Everything I found out surprised me, mainly because so little actual archival research had ever been done on the subject. Every single thing was a find.
How has Wonder Woman fit into the broader universe of comic book superheroes over the years and how has her status and reputation changed, particularly as comics characters become more widely known in American culture?
Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman are the only superheroes who have been continuously in print since the so-called golden age of comics. No other characters have lasted as long. Like all other superheroes, Wonder Woman has a secret identity. But she’s the only one who’s got a secret history, a past that was deliberately hidden.
What do you plan to discuss during your lecture at VCU? Are there particular elements of this book that you think especially strike a chord with college-aged readers?
I’ll be giving a richly illustrated account of Wonder Woman’s origins. Most times when I speak at colleges, there are students who show up in costume. So something is resonating!
You have written books and articles on a wide variety of topics, ranging from 18th century New York and Jane Franklin Mecom, Ben Franklin's sister, to the Tea Party and the contemporary "disruption machine." What attracts your attention to a topic and prompts you to devote your time to it?
Oh, I write about what interests me. I like to make discoveries. So I tend to write about things that other people have never heard of. Wonder Woman is an exception in that way: Everyone’s heard of Wonder Woman. There’s no better known female popular culture icon. But there were so many discoveries to be made with her!
You're working on a book about Joe Gould, who was made famous in two articles by legendary New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell. Can you tell us about that project?
Gould was allegedly writing the longest book ever written, when he lost it. Mitchell later said there was no book, and that Gould had made it up. I got to wondering whether Mitchell was wrong, and so I went looking …
Visit VCU Libraries guide to “The Secret History of Wonder Woman” at http://guides.library.vcu.edu/commonbook.
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