Inside Wonder Woman’s Secret History

Since her creation more than 70 years ago, Wonder Woman has been a feminist icon. The Amazon warrior princess first appeared on comic book stands in 1942 and fought for love, justice, truth, beauty and, of course, women’s rights, using her famed Lasso of Truth to wrangle villains.

Solidifying her place in feminist history decades later, she was chosen in 1972 to grace the cover of the first issue of Ms. magazine during a “fertile moment in the 60s and 70s when Wonder Woman [became] the icon for the women’s liberation movement.”

Now, Wonder Woman’s feminism is front and center again. Jill Lepore, award-winning writer and New Yorker contributor, recently authored of The Secret History of Wonder Woman, which takes a look at the superhero’s—and her creator’s—commitment to women’s rights. Lepore sat down with Alex Cohen, co-host of KPCC’s “Take Two,” recently in Los Angeles to discuss Wonder Woman’s feminist roots.

Lepore admitted that she hadn’t actually been aware of Wonder Woman as a child, but after she discovered the character later in life, she dove headfirst into a trove of comics, archives, uncovered documents and the personal life of Wonder Woman’s creator, the eccentric William Moulton Marston, to get to the heart of Wonder Woman herself.

The progressiveness of Wonder Woman’s character makes more sense once you understand her creator. In a letter to comics historian Coulton Waugh, Marston wrote, “Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.”

Says Lepore,

From Marston’s life we know so much about how the suffragist and separatist and early birth-control activists influenced him and were indeed members of his family. … You can see in the visual representation of Wonder Woman that same influence, that is, the influence of the suffrage, feminism and birth-control movement. Marston said Wonder Woman always has to be tied up because she’s an allegory for the emancipated woman; she has to emancipate herself in every story. So in order for her to emancipate herself, we have to tie her up.

But his relationship to the women’s movement was complicated. On one hand, he was a well-known psychologist who supported the suffrage movement (also, the aunt of his mistress was birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger). On the other hand, he had children with both his wife and mistress (though to the surprise of people even today, all three of them secretly raised the children together in a loving, polyamorous relationship). Explains Lepore,

Wonder Woman was really the icon of liberal feminists. … Radical feminists who were working for structural change … thought that Wonder Woman was a complete catastrophe, a complete betrayal of everything feminism stood for. That there was all this emphasis on the individual, that the only way to actually triumph was to have super powers? What kind of equality is that?

Lepore is personally more disappointed by the sexualized and more violent modern depictions of  Wonder Woman, which she thinks go against the superhero’s pacifist origins. But despite the imperfections of how Wonder Woman has been portrayed, Lepore believes that Wonder Woman still plays an important role for girls.

Near the end of the discussion, Lepore recounted the story of when she shared her comic collection with a girl in foster care. After quickly dismissing the Flash and the Green Lantern, Lepore’s young pal was instantly enraptured with Wonder Woman. “For an 8-year-old girl to see someone who can rescue people, I think that is a great gift.”

The new issue of Ms., on newsstands Feb. 24, features an excerpt from Jill Lepore’s book, The Secret History of Wonder WomanSubscribe today and have the issue delivered to your doorstep!

Photo of Jill Lepore (left) and Alex Cohen by Gary Leonard.





Corinne Gaston is currently an editorial intern at Ms. and is working toward a B.A. in Creative Writing at USC. When not in the Ms. office, she is the Associate Opinion Editor at Neon Tommy. Follow her on Twitter @elysehamsa or go to her personal blog.