Promotional art for the cover of Wonder Woman vol. 3, #5 (May, 2007).

Promotional art for the cover of Wonder Woman vol. 3, #5 (May, 2007).

Wonder Woman debuted in 1941, and she quickly became one of the most popular superheroes in the world of comics. Her creator, William Marston, was a prominent psychologist who believed that if women had the same opportunities as men, they would soon rule the world. His unorthodox beliefs were paired with a complicated love life: he was married to a feminist with her own career — and his mistress lived with them. This new biography explores the man behind Wonder Woman, and the political, cultural and social forces that shaped an enduring female icon.

Guests

  • Jill Lepore Professor, American History, Harvard University; author, "The Secret History of Wonder Woman"

Book Excerpt

Excerpted from “The Secret History of Wonder Woman” by Jill Lepore, copyright Knopf 2014. All rights reserved.

Photo Gallery

Transcript

  • 13:17:39

    MR. MARC FISHERWelcome back, I'm Marc Fisher of The Washington Post, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi and we are pleased, right now, to be welcomed -- to welcome Jill Lepore of Harvard University, a historian there and a writer for The New Yorker. She's written a book about Wonder Woman, Wonder Woman, the comic book heroine of the 1940s who morphed into a TV star in the '70s, was the creation of a failed college psychology professor who invented the lie detector and believed that women had the smarts and strength to rule the world.

  • 13:18:08

    MR. MARC FISHERBut William Marston's home life was a wonder in its time too, he was married to a feminist with a career of her own and they lived together with his mistress who raised both women's children. A new biography tells the story of William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman and the secret history of proto-feminist heroine and Jill Lepore, welcome.

  • 13:18:29

    MS. JILL LEPOREThank you.

  • 13:18:30

    FISHERSo, we live now in an era where superheroes have made, kind of, a comeback, at least in the summer, in the movie theaters. And it seems there's always another Marvel hero getting his own time on the big screen. So how has Wonder Woman survived the decades? Is she a historical relic or living heroine?

  • 13:18:51

    LEPOREThat's a great question. Well, she's the longest lasting female superhero, she has a longevity that is enviable by Marvel standards to the first comic book superhero, Superman, in 1938, followed by Batman in 1939, Captain America starts in 1940 and Wonder Woman 1941. So a lot of those characters have a really long history and most of them are out of print, for years and years and years, comic books go into decline in the '50s and, you know, some of them, you know, start back up again in the '60s.

  • 13:19:19

    LEPOREBut Wonder Woman's never been out of print. So it's a really long stretch of time, only Superman and Batman have lasted as long. And, you know, we are in this weird moment with superhero culture, right now, where you just really can't go to the theater and not stumble into, yet, another superhero movie, there's so many that they are now parodies of them, like "The Guardians of the Galaxy" movies, or...

  • 13:19:38

    FISHERRight.

  • 13:19:39

    LEPORE...this great Birdman film, I don't know if you had a chance to see it, it's this really interesting reflection on the consequences for masculinity of superhero films and of Hollywood, and our storytelling capacities. So there really is a, kind of, cultural prevalence, of a kind of, this...

  • 13:19:55

    FISHERIt -- and why do you think they've come back with such roaring power at this point in time? Obviously, when they started out in the '30s and '40s as comic book heroes, the lot of the interpretation focused on World War II and immigration and certainly the famous story of the creators of Superman and the, you know, this notion of belonging and assimilating into America. What's the rational for them being popular again now?

  • 13:20:22

    LEPOREWell, that's a big question. I mean, the obvious thing is just their global commodity. They're such well-known icons, they have such a long history, they have been global exports for many, many years. Most of those superhero films make more money outside the United States than within the United States. So if you think about especially in a tricky economy where Hollywood risk-takers are less risky than ever before and you look at all kinds of industries where our products are more and more conventional and redundant and repetitive, it's very easy to imagine how to sell the next superhero movie.

  • 13:20:57

    FISHERYou can join our conversation about Wonder Woman by calling 1-800-433-8850 or email us at kojo@wamu.org. And so why Wonder Woman. You write so perceptively about Benjamin Franklin or his sister or Hillary Clinton or very memorably about your own mother. Why Wonder Woman?

  • 13:21:19

    LEPOREYeah, that is another great question that I'm not going to be able to answer fully. But I actually totally backed into this project. I'm not a comics person and most of what's written about the comics is actually written by comics fans, which has a kind of downside, right, because it's all fannish and it doesn't have a kind of critical apparatus. Not that that's not the kind of cool stuff that people write, but I'm a political historian.

  • 13:21:41

    LEPOREAnd I stumbled into this project because I was working on a long series of -- a series of lectures on the history of privacy. And I got really interested in the lie detector because, think about it, like, it's like the last stand for privacy if the lie detector works. So you could be strapped up to something that tells whether you're telling the truth or not. Like, the NSA looks innocent compared to a lie detector, if it actually worked, which it doesn't.

  • 13:21:58

    LEPOREBut -- so I came across Marston's story and he's just kind of a fascinating larger than life. He's this showman. He's got a hand in everything, and just the craziness in the kind of like Wikipedia level craziness. And he also created Wonder Woman. How did that happen? But then I was also working on a piece for the New Yorker on the history of Planned Parenthood. This was in the last presidential election campaign year in 2011 when all the Republican nominees had to sign the Susan B. Anthony Pledge that if they were elected they would pledge to defund Planned Parenthood.

  • 13:22:26

    LEPORESo doing a piece about Planned Parenthood and why it had become so controversial, and I wanted to do a long historical angle on it. And so Planned Parenthood was founded essentially in 1916 by Ethel Byrne -- I mean, by Ethel Byrne and Margaret Sanger, sisters who were nurses who opened the first birth control clinic in the United States that year.

  • 13:22:42

    LEPORESo I was reading Sanger's papers, which are at Smith College and the papers of Planned Parenthood. And in those papers I kept coming across all this correspondence with people in Marston's family. And I was just knocked out and sitting in the archives, you know, even like leap out of your chair and say, wait a minute, wait a minute. Margaret Sanger and Wonder Woman have this tie through this crazy Marston guy. It just was so interesting and actually the more I dug at that the more consequential it seemed to me.

  • 13:23:07

    LEPORESo where I'd kind of put Wonder Woman in a category of, you know, sort of fascinating pop stories and elements in American life that I couldn't have that kind of sticky feel like, wow, that's really interesting, Wonder Woman. But where does that come from? No one sort of knew. It turns out Wonder Woman really is closely related to Sanger and to the -- not just to the birth control movement but to the feminism in early -- suffrage in early feminist movements at the beginning of the century who really influenced Marston. And in many ways then Wonder Woman becomes this missing link in the history of the long struggle for women's equality.

  • 13:23:41

    FISHERAnd so did William Marston have that political notion in mind in creating Wonder Woman? Was he attempting to spread the notion of feminism and advocacy for birth control and that sort of thing through Wonder Woman, or was this -- he needed to make some money?

  • 13:23:59

    LEPOREYeah, he's a cagy guy to figure out. And he certainly says, you know, when asked, you know, privately in the letter at one point in 1945, a guy writes him and he's like, why did you create Wonder Woman? Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I think, rule the world. And so he talks about it in this explicitly feminist women's power that is also (word?) of the new woman. It comes from the 1920s.

  • 13:24:23

    LEPOREHe'll say that all the time and then the question is, do you believe him? Guys -- you know, he's a showman, he's a performer, he's his own publicist. He certainly absolutely pitches it that way at press releases that the publisher puts out in 1942 when Wonder Woman gets her own comic book, they say, you know. Wonder Woman is meant to teach girls and boys that girls can do anything, that they should be promoted, they should be allowed to achieve in the arts and in politics and in science everything that boys can do. And that that's what Wonder Woman, as a comic book, is designed to teach children.

  • 13:24:56

    FISHERAre you a fan of Wonder Woman? Let us know at 1-800-433-8850. Do you think the evolution of Wonder Woman reflects a conflicting relationship with feminism and do you think Wonder Woman's pinup girl features undermine her feminist message, 1-800-433-8850, or kojo@wamu.org. And we're talking with Jill Lepore, professor of American history at Harvard and a writer at the New Yorker. She's the author of "The Secret History of Wonder Woman." And she will be speaking tonight at the Smithsonian's S. Dillon Ripley Center at 6:45. Ticket information is available on their website and you can find a link on our website at kojoshow.org.

  • 13:25:38

    FISHERSo Wonder Woman had this feminist back story, and it's interesting to hear that Marston conceived of her as a propaganda tool, a weapon of some sort. Did the comic book publishers know that and were they onboard with that or was this kind of a stealth mission on his part?

  • 13:25:58

    LEPORENo, no, no. That's exactly what they hired him to do. So comic books, which really start in the 1930s, '33 or so, are subject to a lot of criticism. It's a whole new art form. Only kids read them. There's tons of violence in them. There are these, like, half-naked men and women running around clobbering one another and all this crazy science fiction stuff.

  • 13:26:15

    LEPOREAnd a lot of parents are quite alarmed. They don't even know how to read them. Like literally they hold the comic book. They don't even know how to follow the story. And it's really splashy, flashy stuff. And their kids are super addicted to them. Kids, you know, save up their money and they go down and they buy them by the dozens. They cost a dime.

  • 13:26:31

    LEPORESo there's a lot of moral concern and it kind of rages into a moral crusade against comics by 1940 where there are calls for comic books to be banned. There are public burnings of comic books. And a lot of it is a kind of critique of Superman which takes the form of the suspicion that Superman is a fascist, right. That he's this uber mench , that he's better than everyone else. And that he's a demagogue whose charisma and extraordinary powers, he's of a finer race than American boys.

  • 13:27:03

    LEPOREPeople are really, really suspicious of this. And so publishers of comics don't know what to do. And this guy M. C. Gaines brings in Marston who's a very well-known psychologist. And he's a columnist for Family Circle magazine. And although he leads this very unconventional family life, it's quite hidden.

  • 13:27:22

    LEPORESo they bring in Gaines -- Gaines brings in Marston and says, what should we do? And Marston has a few different ideas. Like he wants there to be an editorial advisory board of experts who certify that the comics are good for children. And he's going to serve on the board. And, you know, he wants the comic book publisher to use this little logo. And that's when they become D.C. comics around the same time.

  • 13:27:42

    LEPOREBut his big idea is, look, you could counter all your critics by having a female superhero because she would adjure war, she would not be a demagogue. She would profess love and truth and beauty. You'd also bring in a whole new group of readers because girls will want to read -- but actually she would be the antidote to the blood curdling masculinity of comics, he says.

  • 13:28:01

    FISHERAnd did it work out that way? Was the audience for the Wonder Woman comic books primarily women and girls?

  • 13:28:07

    LEPORENo, because the audience for comic books was primarily boys. Gaines actually does this school thing. He does this reader survey. He sends out questionnaires. And this is part of the deal he makes with Marston. He says, I'll give it six months, we'll see, because he's very suspicious that he could really sell these girls comics.

  • 13:28:19

    LEPOREWell, you know, they have decided, of course, if they make her look like a bombshell and a pinup girl they'll sell the comics a little bit more briskly too. But they do a survey and they say, should Wonder Woman, even though a woman, be allowed to join the justice society? Justice society has just been formed. And I found the returns, the tallies of the questionnaire in the archives. And, you know, everybody says yeah -- so almost everybody says yes. But the other thing you learn from the tallies is that almost all of the readers are boys.

  • 13:28:45

    FISHERWell, here's a reader who was not a boy. It's Nichole in Olney. Nichole, you're on the air.

  • 13:28:51

    NICHOLEHi. I grew up watching the television show and that's how I became familiar with the comic books.

  • 13:29:00

    LEPOREYeah.

  • 13:29:00

    NICHOLEAnd I used to spin myself almost sick trying to turn into, you know, Linda Carter as Wonder Woman. And -- but I'm very much a comic book fan in general and something that my mother as well. She read a lot of comic books because she said they didn't have, like, TV. So they would read, you know, comic books and things like that. And so she was always very much into those things as well.

  • 13:29:25

    NICHOLESo, you know, Wonder Woman, I think, probably was very important that it brought in, you know, little girls included in the party. Which is kind of a bigger situation now with the gamer gate. It kind of reminds me of, like, they don't want women there, you know. And, you know, women have been there. We've always been there and interested in these kinds of genres.

  • 13:29:47

    LEPOREYeah, thank you so much, Nichole. That's really interesting. It points out too these really interesting generational ties. Like Wonder Woman, because she is so long lasting, she spans generations. So, you know, I talk to women all the time whose mothers read Wonder Woman when they were little growing up in the '40s say, and who saw Linda Carter in the '70s. And who have kids now who -- you know, that their daughters fell in love with Wonder Woman too.

  • 13:30:07

    LEPOREAnd I think one thing that's important about that, it is really an important corrective to what we think of in terms of the history of comics. But I think that actually the story of Wonder Woman and her larger history belongs to the larger political history of the 20th century. Because when we think about the women's rights movement in this country, we think about this first wave that ends in 1920 with the ratification of the 19th Amendment, women get the right to vote.

  • 13:30:27

    LEPOREAnd then the second wave that starts, you know, in the last '60s, early '70s as if nothing happened in between. But when you put Wonder Woman back in and you think about people like your mom reading Wonder Woman in the '40s, and that Wonder Woman was based on suffrages, some feminist and birth control activists who were active in the teens during that first wave, and then inspires. Because people like Gloria Steinem, she talks about having read Wonder Woman in the '40s when she was growing up. Wonder Woman is kind of the inspiration for what we think of as the second wave. And there are really no waves. There's just this one rushing river.

  • 13:30:57

    NICHOLEYeah, it really is. Thank you.

  • 13:30:59

    FISHERThank you for the call. So let's get to the juicy bits. When -- the creator of Wonder Woman, William Marston, had a fascinating home life, one that perhaps is even more exotic than the adventures that took place in the comic book. How did you come upon this and spell that out for us.

  • 13:31:19

    LEPORESo the home life was really a family secret for years and years and years and year and years, and very well kept for all kinds of reasons. Not even for the family's need for privacy, but also protecting the reputation of Margaret Sanger who had become a very controversial figure. And some of it kind of leaked out in the 1990s. So when I started this project, I knew that Marston had been married to a woman named Elizabeth Holloway. They had been childhood sweethearts. He went to Harvard, she went to Mount Holyoke. They married, you know, the month -- a couple months after they graduated from college in 1915.

  • 13:31:46

    LEPOREBut I knew that they had brought into their household, starting in 1925, this young woman Olive Byrne and they had raised four children together. That sort of bare outlines of the domestic arrangement was the kind you could find in Wikipedia. Like, you know, one of the children had said, this is how we grew up and it was actually very nice. We are all incredibly loved. It was -- it somehow worked for us as kids.

  • 13:32:08

    LEPOREBut then nothing else was observable about that. But I spent a lot of time talking -- three of the children surviving the widow of the fourth child is Stoner (sp?) , I spent a lot of time talking to each of them, in particular to two of the sons and looking at their family papers and more tying that family story with stuff that I found in the archives and the Sanger papers and the papers of many other people who knew the family.

  • 13:32:31

    LEPOREAnd it is a really unconventional family arrangement and it is, I think, easy to fixate on all kinds of questions that I, as a biographer, had to ask. Like, okay, where did everybody sleep? Like, I don't get that?

  • 13:32:45

    FISHERAnd what was the answer?

  • 13:32:48

    LEPOREYou know, it was pretty interesting. Like, there was on the second -- this big sprawling house in rye, N.Y. and on the second story there was a bathroom that had a bedroom on either end of it. And you could get from one bedroom to the next without going through the hallway. So each woman had a bedroom and Marston could, you know, go through the bathroom to -- so, you know, as a biographer one has to actually -- you kind of have to nail down those questions.

  • 13:33:11

    LEPOREBut what I'm much more interested as a historian of the whole period is how -- you know, how did they come to believe that that was a solution? And there's -- whenever I would tell people the story, like, just friends of mine, you know, like in the park we're watching our kids play or whatever, like, so why would you think that -- and people'd be like, oh, don't you always say, you know, you and your husband are both working and you're raising kids together. And who's going to cook dinner tonight and how are we going to manage -- who's going to bring the kid there? Oh, we should just have a wife.

  • 13:33:38

    LEPOREYou know, it's like -- it's kind of a dumb cliché but people say it all the time. It's like, actually --

  • 13:33:43

    FISHERThey did it.

  • 13:33:43

    LEPOREThen they did that. They kind of did that. But it reminds us of just how stubborn that dilemma is and how long that's been around. So Holloway, Marston's wife, graduated from college in 1915 then she went to law school, then she went to graduate school. She's incredibly ambitious. She wanted to have it all. And in the 1920s when these new women, the first generations of women to graduate from college and enter the professions wanted to have it all, they were really puzzled by what they would do.

  • 13:34:10

    FISHERAnd these two women apparently got along so famously that they continued living together for many years after Marston died.

  • 13:34:16

    LEPOREYeah, Marston --so they all began living together in 1925, '26. Marston meets Olive Byrne when he's teaching at Tufts. She's a senior there. And then they all begin living together. He dies in 1947 so they lived together for many years raising their children. But Olive Byrne doesn't die until 1988. So it's decades and decades and decades and now nearly another half century that Olive Byrne and Elizabeth Holloway live together, more or less inseparable.

  • 13:34:42

    FISHERAnd was there a relationship between them or -- a sexual relationship?

  • 13:34:45

    LEPOREWell, you know, I don't know. Actually, I'm one of those historians who gets kind of troubled when people assume that they can figure such a thing out. I mean, that actually...

  • 13:34:56

    FISHERWell, you spoke to the children so...

  • 13:34:57

    LEPOREYeah, I did, I did. And the kids are like, no, we didn't see any evidence of that. It's not what -- you know, but it's kind of generational actually. When you're talking to me like, my generation, I would assume of course they did. Another generation, like if I'd asked my mother, told my mother this story (unintelligible) she's like, well, no, I don't think they would've slept together. So there's no documentary evidence one way or the other. And I feel like one should defer to the children and their version of it.

  • 13:35:22

    FISHERAnd this was all frank and open within the family but did they make an effort to keep it all secret to the outside world?

  • 13:35:29

    LEPORESo no, it wasn't actually frank and open within the family, which is quite interesting. The children were told -- Olive Byrne had two sons and they were told that their father had died soon after they were born, that he had fought in the First World War and he had been gassed and he had lung problems and he died very young. And she just didn't happen to have any photographs of him or any stories about him.

  • 13:35:46

    FISHERWow.

  • 13:35:47

    LEPOREAnd then they were all -- she gave them up for adoption. So they were adopted by Marston and his wife. So legally the children belonged to Marston and his wife. And they were -- and Olive's two sons were told that biologically they had no relationship to that family.

  • 13:36:02

    FISHERAnd it gets even more interesting because in Wonder Woman there are depictions rather consistently of bondage, spankings, overtones of lesbianism. Not surprisingly Marston had this very open minded sexuality, was interested in female sexual power and dominance. What -- was thee a connection between what was going on at home and what was depicted in Wonder Woman?

  • 13:36:27

    LEPOREWell, there are different sources for what's going on in Wonder Woman. I mean, this of course was extremely controversial, as you would imagine. I mean, imagine M. C. Gaines, he hires Marston to solve all of his PR problems because, you know, the superheroes look like fascists.

  • 13:36:41

    LEPOREAnd then the next thing you know, Wonder Woman is banned. She's consistently banned and there's a huge uproar about Wonder Woman, particularly about the bondage because people are...

  • 13:36:49

    FISHERBanned where?

  • 13:36:50

    LEPOREThe National League for Decent Literature -- National Organization for Decent Literature, the League of Catholic Bishops bans Wonder Woman. And then a member of the editorial advisory board for what is D.C. Comics resigns in protest over the bondage in Wonder Woman. They bring in another psychiatrist, a woman from Bellevue Hospital to evaluate whether Wonder Woman is bad for children. It becomes a pretty big -- pretty controversial conversation in the 1940s.

  • 13:37:13

    FISHERWow. And so what was Marston trying to do with all of that -- his story lines?

  • 13:37:18

    LEPOREWell, he said -- and he -- there's an abundant paper trail about this because he had to answer against all these charges, and he repeatedly said, look, Wonder Woman is an allegory for the emancipation of women. So in order for her to demonstrate that allegorically, she needs to be chained up. She needs to be chained up in every story so that she can emancipate herself so that she can allegorically represent the emancipation of women. And people are like, really? Do we really have to put her in chains?

  • 13:37:45

    LEPOREBut when you think about that and take that literally -- in fact, Marston is drawing on a very developed convention in the 1910s when suffrages marched in suffrage parades in chains to protest their enslavement and their whole -- and suffrage cartoonists who had a direct influence on the artist who drew Wonder Woman would draw women in chains all the time. There would be these allegorical sort of Amazonian women. They would be in chains, breaking their chains, demonstrating the emancipation of women.

  • 13:38:12

    LEPORESo Marston and the artist behind Wonder Woman, Harry G. Peter, were actually not dishonest in saying all that bondage was allegorical. It was drawing on a very important and powerful iconographic convention. Now that said, okay, well, how much of that did they really need? Or was something else going on? It's really hard not to look at -- a suffragist breaking chains is one thing. A pinup girl chained up in her, you know, high-heeled red boots looks like something else.

  • 13:38:42

    FISHEROkay. Let's talk with Amanda in Arlington whom has a sexuality-related question. Amanda, you're on the air.

  • 13:38:50

    AMANDAHi. Thank you. I just love all your enthusiasm for this topic, Jill. It's just so -- I read the article and kept reading it aloud. Every time I'd come upon something, I'm like, oh my god. I was reading it aloud to my poor husband, of course, telling him like, I used to have Wonder Woman Underoos. That's where it came into my life. And it came into my life of course like with the television show. And somehow I became a fan of Linda Carter on Facebook.

  • 13:39:17

    AMANDAAnd I think it's so interesting -- you were talking about how that river just keeps flowing through generations and she kind of becomes something to everybody. And now she's an icon for the gay community. Like she -- Linda Carter herself as Wonder Woman -- I mean, she didn't dress up as Wonder Woman, but she was the grand marshal of, like, the D.C. Pride Parade a couple years ago. And one of my friends was like her -- I don't know what you'd call it -- like marched with her. And she was in full, you know, Wonder Woman regalia.

  • 13:39:44

    AMANDAAnd I do think it's -- I mean, I don't know if it's she's being co-opted or if she's just being taken on, but I just kind of love it that everybody can kind of take her as kind of whatever they want her to be to break out of whatever bondage or chains or whatever they are, you know, to emancipate themselves. I'm just -- I don't know if you got -- I know you were really talking about the comic strips in the book but I just kind of like that now she's even that for a whole other kind of sense of individuality and kind of taking on -- breaking free from what other people want you to do. So (unintelligible) ...

  • 13:40:15

    LEPOREYeah, yeah -- no, thanks very much for that, Amanda. You know, I think people feel very passionate about Linda Carter, people who both were fans as kids and people who, you know, have followed her through the years and for just the reasons that you describe. People also really do kind of want to identify Marston as a kind of ancestor to certain kinds of political and cultural movements too because he did actually write a lot about non-conformism and how the prejudices against people who don't conform was the most dangerous kind of prejudices of all.

  • 13:40:45

    LEPOREAnd that people should learn -- he wrote this book called "The Emotions of Normal People" that was sort of a kind of critique about normal psychology in which he said, you know, what you think is abnormal about who you love and how you love them physically is not abnormal at all. You should just learn to love who you are as a person who loves.

  • 13:41:00

    LEPORESo a lot of people find that very powerful and very, very moving. I mean, I think when you look at the domestic arrangements and, you know, kind of have to say, huh, did that really work that well for Olive Byrne? I mean, I think everything is a lot more complicated when you look at it up close. And the Linda Carter TV show was really something of a -- an incendiary topic among feminists at the time of the 1970s. I mean, I was a kid then so it was just like...

  • 13:41:26

    AMANDAYeah, I think it was okay for me to tell, like, my more feminist friends like, I like that show. Like, oh god, it's so awful that you grow up in the country and you weren't exposed to, you know, thinking things. But I did and -- yeah, but I'm so glad you talked about the bedrooms because I was trying to picture, like, their whole big love arrangement at their house, like how they, like, combined the bedrooms. So I'm so glad you (unintelligible) ...

  • 13:41:48

    FISHEROkay.

  • 13:41:49

    LEPOREIt satisfied your curiosity.

  • 13:41:50

    FISHERThank you, Amanda. So we're talking with Jill Lepore, professor of American history at Harvard, a writer for the New Yorker about Wonder Woman. Let us know what you think of Wonder Woman. Have you been a fan through the years? What do you think of her relationship with feminism at 1-800-433-8850? When we come back after a short break, we'll also look at the unusual relationship between Wonder Woman and Washington, D.C. and even here at American University. I'm Marc Fisher of the Washington Post. This is "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."

  • 13:42:48

    FISHERWelcome back. I'm Marc Fisher of the Washington Post sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi and we are talking with Jill Lepore of the New Yorker and Harvard University, who's the author of "The Secret History of Wonder Woman." And Wonder Woman, unlike other superheroes, of course Batman lived in Gotham and Superman lived in Metropolis, both of which are pretty much stand-ins for New York City. But Wonder Woman's alter ego Diana Prince lives in the District, of all places. How did that happen?

  • 13:43:18

    LEPOREYeah, that's a great thing about Wonder Woman. She's more political and in a very particular sense. She's less about crime and more about politics, which is -- you'd want her to be in D.C. and not in New York, right. So -- and Marston had spend a lot of time in his life in Washington and really influential time in his life. So you remember about Wonder Woman, she's got these bracelets that stop bullets. But her other secret weapon is her magic lasso, this golden lasso. And anyone she ropes has to tell the truth.

  • 13:43:43

    LEPORESo this comes from Marston's work as a scientist in the field known at the time as the detection of deception. So he finished a PhD in psychology at Harvard in 1921. And the first job he got -- he also had a law degree from Harvard -- was at American University as a professor of legal psychology. And what he was trying to do, and he -- was teach how to bring the science of psychology into a court of law. And in particular he wanted to introduce his lie detector into a court of law.

  • 13:44:10

    LEPORESo he came to American University and taught all these classes. He got involved in this really, really tremendously important murder trial in Washington in 1922. But the reason Washington was also the place he wanted to be was because during the First World War he worked for U.S. military intelligence, which is what Diana Prince does, you'll recall. She flies from Paradise Island the Land of Women to the United States in 1941 in her invisible jet. She takes a job working for U.S. military intelligence.

  • 13:44:34

    LEPOREAnd so -- which Marston had done too in the First World War. And she's involved in sort of trying to track down spies. And you would need the tools in which you could detect deception. So she uses her magic lasso all the time to find out who are German spies, which is pretty much what Marston, you know, kind of in his fantasy did in the First World War also with German spies.

  • 13:44:54

    FISHERWow. Interesting. So we have an email from Tess in Potomac. She says, "I watched Wonder Woman on TV and I had the lunchbox and all that. Now hearing more about the original comic, I'm disappointed that the television show didn't have more of that feminist message."

  • 13:45:08

    LEPOREOh, you know, it's interesting. We were just listening to the lyrics in the break. And the lyrics are totally straight out of Marston. There had been a previous attempt -- there had been two previous attempts to put Wonder Woman on TV. One was this show called "Who's Afraid of Diana Prince" that was written by William Dozier, the guy that did the "Adam West Can't Be Batman" series. And it's a terrible -- you can watch the screen test on YouTube. It's appalling.

  • 13:45:29

    LEPOREAnd then there was this Kathy Crosby show, you know, she was totally ill cast as Wonder Woman. And it was updated. And then when the Linda Carter show came out I think in '76, it was meant to be really close to the comics. And I think it was. I think what it captures too is the multi-valence there, that Wonder Woman is both very strong and she can carry men around and she can find bad guys and catch them and bring them to justice. But she's also got these, you know, breasts that are jiggling all over the place whenever she runs. And that's what we're mainly supposed to be looking at.

  • 13:46:03

    LEPOREThe comics work that way too. I think it's easy to forget that the comics work that way too. I think there can be both in the same storyline. Look at Lady Gaga. People might say, like, is Lady Gaga a feminist icon or not a feminist -- is she antifeminist or feminist? Well, I don't know, she may be kind of both.

  • 13:46:17

    FISHERNow, Marston's time here in Washington, it sounds like he was already doing the work that would lead to the invention of the lie detector test. Was that a project that he came up with on his own? Was it a military commission? How did that...

  • 13:46:30

    LEPORENo, no. So there had been this interesting -- so experimental psychology really begins in the 1880s, 1890s. And Marston is a Harvard student who worked with this German psychologist Hugo Munsterberg who ran the Harvard Psychological laboratory. Munsterberg actually makes an appearance in Wonder Woman as her arch nemesis who's this guy Dr. Psycho. Munsterberg was opposed to women suffrage and so is Dr. Psycho.

  • 13:46:56

    LEPOREBut Marston, following the work that Munsterberg and others had done, is trying to figure out what are the physiological signs of deception? And he starts really pushing at blood pressure as the best measure of deception. So many people worked on this research, but Marston, who's a great publicist, credits himself as the inventor of the lie detector test, not the machine, the polygraph which is patented by somebody else, but the test itself.

  • 13:47:21

    FISHERWell, here's Alan in Los Angeles. Alan, you're on the air.

  • 13:47:26

    ALANHi. This has been a great conversation. I've really enjoyed listening to this, by the way.

  • 13:47:31

    FISHERThank you.

  • 13:47:32

    ALANSo I'm actually a comic book historian and I've been doing geek (word?) journalism for a number of years. And I love Wonder Woman and I think this book is great. I was just curious what you folks thought about how in recent years they've altered Wonder Woman's origin, instead of being someone born without the presence of man and she now has a father, her father Zeus. And Aries the male God of War teaches her how to fight, what you thought that -- if that went against the feminism message or if it's just another interpretation. Because I understand that's also the origin they're going with in the movie.

  • 13:48:11

    LEPOREYeah, okay. So, Alan, thanks for that question. So I'm going to be brutally candid here. I think that stinks. It just stinks. It's completely -- it's crap because, look, the whole thing -- so Wonder Woman's origin story that she's an Amazon from the Island of Paradise where there are no men and she comes from ancient Greece, that story comes straight out of feminist utopian fiction from the 1910's.

  • 13:48:32

    LEPOREMost of us read Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "Her Land" in college in 1914, 1915 and is one of many, many feminist utopian fictional works that pictured a world without men, which was, well, a world of peace and harmony. And it was part of suffragism and pacifism. And it had a huge intellectual pull on Marston and on many people who grew up in the 19 teens and '20s. And he borrows that whole feminist utopian fiction hook, line and sinker and uses it as Wonder Woman's back story. That's essential to who she is as a character. The whole kind of crazy kooky Zeus thing just seems like some cheap, like, Percy Jackson imitation junk to me.

  • 13:49:09

    FISHERAnd now there is a movie coming out as well?

  • 13:49:11

    LEPOREYeah. Yeah, so, Alan in L.A., that means someone else in L.A. is listening. Maybe you need to change Wonder Woman's back story in the movie and go back to Paradise Island because really...

  • 13:49:22

    ALANOh, I would love to.

  • 13:49:23

    LEPORE...it is totally essential. Like, who would mess with krypton? Like, do we not -- okay. krypton is kind of a ridiculous back story too but we accept that that is essential to how we understand Superman because Superman emerges from the conventions of science fiction. And of course he comes from another planet. That's how science fiction stories work. Wonder Woman comes from the conventions of feminist utopian fiction. She must come from an Island of Woman.

  • 13:49:44

    FISHERYou've been given a mission, Alan, to take that message to the rest of Los Angeles (unintelligible) . So Jill Lepore, Wonder Woman comes from that feminist utopian literature but also from some of the pinup girls of the 1940s. I mean, in a way a model for Wonder Woman is the Vargas Girl, the centerfolds of the 1940s. So what's going on there with that mishmash? Is that all Marston's creation or is some of this imposed upon him?

  • 13:50:12

    LEPOREYeah, so one of the things I try to do in the book is use Wonder Woman and her long history as an opportunity to revisit the whole history of things that we don't pay enough attention to. Like the long struggle for women's equality but also the evolving conventions of female beauty, and the commercialization of different ideas about female beauty.

  • 13:50:28

    LEPORESo Wonder Woman really -- like the stuff that she does, like get chained up, really borrows from these really powerful suffrage cartoons. But -- and her costume which is super patriotic is kind of just a rip-off of Captain America.

  • 13:50:40

    FISHER...Captain America, yeah.

  • 13:50:41

    LEPOREIt comes out a few months before and he's basically wearing an American flag. It's like, this is the required costume in 1941. You must dress up in an American eagle with star spangled underwear. There's a war on, god damn it.

  • 13:50:52

    FISHERRight.

  • 13:50:53

    LEPOREBut the kind of sense of her -- this sort of sultriness and this sort of kinkiness of her, there's a kind of all American athleticism to it that we can see in Hollywood in that era. But there's a soft porn to it that really comes from these beautiful drawings of the Brazilian artist Alberto Vargas who drew these centerfolds for Esquire magazine in the 1940s that were called the Varga Girls. Esquire was Playboy before there was Playboy.

  • 13:51:20

    LEPORESo these Varga Girls are very, very sultry pinups. I mean, I went to try to go look at them in the Harvard library and they've all been sliced out by Harvard undergraduates years and years ago because you can't get those Varga Girl pinups anymore if you look at bound volumes. But they -- but if you -- there's a place in the book where I compare an early drawing of Wonder Woman by Harry G. Peter with one of the early Varga Girls. And they have really the identical look.

  • 13:51:45

    FISHERLet's turn to Stephan in Triangle, Va. Stephan, you're on the air.

  • 13:51:50

    STEPHANYes. I think it's a really interesting conversation you guys are having today. I just wanted to point out a couple of things as somebody who's been a fan of comics for most of my life. It's always like Wonder Woman's -- or they kind of champion social movements that we've had in the country, like feminism, like the X-men does -- or did for the civil rights movement or, you know, kind of underscores those kind of -- that progress in these social movements. I just wanted to point those things out.

  • 13:52:23

    LEPOREYeah, I think that's really interesting. There's a lot of reason to pay attention to what's going on in these stories because they have such a purchase on the imagination of generations of people. I mean, like Iron Man starts in '63 I think and is really a response to Eisenhower's 1961 military industrial complex speech. I mean, Iron Man is a kind of changed arms manufacturer. It's kind of a critique of the military industrial complex.

  • 13:52:46

    LEPOREThese stories are very, very rich. I mean, what they accomplish in terms of those social movements is a much more complicated question. But they're really powerful and important readings to do with them.

  • 13:52:56

    FISHERAnd this battle continues, the fight for the soul of Wonder Woman, I guess, continues. There was an announcement over the summer that a new writer would be taking over the Wonder Woman comic. This caused a bit of a stir when she said that she was going to take it in a more mainstream direction. And of course some people took that to mean in a less feminist direction. What's going on there?

  • 13:53:16

    LEPOREYeah well, the comics have been through many, many, many writers. And they're -- you know, one of the things that new writers want to do is make the characters their own. And also there's this big make them relevant, you know. Really, these antiques. I mean, I think it's -- it would be a more powerful statement to sort of know where you came from and be who you are as opposed to try and be constantly updating yourself. I think many of the characters are weakened by that move.

  • 13:53:41

    LEPOREBut nevertheless, it's a kind of organic process. You can follow Wonder -- what happens after Marston dies in 1947? Marston's widow says to D.C. Comics, you should hire me. Like, it's a family project. I know this character. I should write this character because it needs more psychology behind it. D.C. Comics hires this guy Bob Caniger who, you know, turns Wonder Woman into like a daffy, dopey girl who always needs Steve Trevor to help her do anything. And she loses her kinky red boots and begins wearing these yellow ballet shoes. And she just becomes very weak and, oh, isn't she adorable, you know. And we -- but she gets reinvented in a different way, you know, by the next writer.

  • 13:54:21

    FISHERIt's unfair to ask a big question in the last minute of the show but there is, in your work, this fascinating blend of history and journalism. And in this book you're out there reporting and talking to the children of Marston at the same time you're doing all this sort of traditional historical work. Is there a conflict between the two, in 30 seconds?

  • 13:54:39

    LEPOREOh, I think there are real pitfalls and things to really avoid, but historians and journalists are -- what they share is relentlessness. We've got to get to the bottom of the story. And as a historian there's questions that sometimes you really need to go report on them to get to the bottom of the story. And journalists are the same thing. Reporters working their stories sometimes wish they knew enough history or want to go find enough history to get to the bottom of the story they're working on. I think it's a lot for those two fields to -- that they share and that they learn from one another.

  • 13:55:02

    FISHERThe book is "The Secret History of Wonder Woman." The author is Jill Lepore, professor of American history at Harvard and a writer at the New Yorker. She'll be speaking tonight at the Smithsonian's Ripley Center at 6:45. And there's ticket information on our website. I'm Marc Fisher of the Washington Post. Thanks very much for joining us.

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