The Man Behind Wonder Woman Was Inspired By Both Suffragists And Centerfolds Wonder Woman's creator had a few secrets of his own. Historian Jill Lepore describes William Moulton Marstothe's unusual life in The Secret History of Wonder Woman. Originally broadcast Oct. 27, 2014.
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The Man Behind Wonder Woman Was Inspired By Both Suffragists And Centerfolds

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The Man Behind Wonder Woman Was Inspired By Both Suffragists And Centerfolds

The Man Behind Wonder Woman Was Inspired By Both Suffragists And Centerfolds

The Man Behind Wonder Woman Was Inspired By Both Suffragists And Centerfolds

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Wonder Woman's creator had a few secrets of his own. Historian Jill Lepore describes William Moulton Marstothe's unusual life in The Secret History of Wonder Woman. Originally broadcast Oct. 27, 2014.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. The new film "Wonder Woman," directed by Patty Jenkins, earned over a hundred million dollars in its opening weekend, setting a new opening weekend box office record for films by a woman director. Wonder Woman is the most popular female comic book hero of all time. And she has a secret past that's revealed in the book, "The Secret History Of Wonder Woman" by our guest, Jill Lepore. It's now out in paperback.

The creator of Wonder Woman, William Moulton Marston, led a secret life with his wife and his mistress. He fathered children with each of them, and they all lived together. His vision for Wonder Woman reflected his interest in the women's suffrage movement and in Margaret Sanger, the birth control and women's rights activist who was also his mistress's aunt. Wonder Woman's costume was inspired by his intense interest in erotic pinup art.

Jill Lepore was first intrigued by Wonder Woman's history when she found the Marston-Sanger connection while researching two seemingly unrelated subjects - a legal story involving the lie detector, which was invented by Marston, and a history of Planned Parenthood which focused on its founder, Margaret Sanger. Lepore is a staff writer for The New Yorker and a professor of American history at Harvard. Her latest book about the eccentric writer Joe Gould is called "Joe Gould's Teeth." Jill Lepore spoke to Terry in 2014.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Jill Lepore, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let me just start with a really obvious question, for people who have never read Wonder Woman and just know her as more as a metaphor (laughter), just describe Wonder Woman the superhero character.

JILL LEPORE: Well, yeah, thanks for having me. It's fun being here. Wonder Woman is an Amazon from an island of women who left ancient Greece to escape the enslavement of men. They lived on Paradise Island and had eternal life. And a plane crashes on their island carrying a man. And Wonder Woman's mother decides he needs to be brought back to where he came from because they can have no man on Paradise Island.

So she stitches for Wonder Woman this star-spangled costume, and Wonder Woman flies in her invisible jet with her man captive Steve Trevor - who's a U.S. military intelligence officer - back to the United States - this is in 1941 - and comes to call herself Wonder Woman because she has superhuman powers that only Amazons have. She has bracelets that can stop bullets. She has a magic lasso, a golden lasso. Anyone she ropes has to tell the truth. And then she's got the cool jet.

GROSS: So it is just amazing to me that this character is inspired in part by Margaret Sanger and the suffragists. And Margaret Sanger being the mother of the birth control movement, the person who came up with the term birth control. So how did the creator William Moulton Marston come to care - first about the suffragists?

LEPORE: So it turns out, Marston has all kinds of ties to the early progressive era suffrage and feminist and birth control movements, sort of an uncanny number and complexity of ties. If you think about Wonder Woman as containing within it a great deal about the story of Marston's own life, his ties really begin when he as a Harvard freshman in 1911 is caught up in a big controversy on campus.

In the fall of 1911, the Harvard Men's League for Women's Suffrage invites the incredible Emmeline Pankhurst to campus to speak in Sanders Theatre, which is like the largest lecture hall on campus. And the Harvard Corporation is terrified. Women are not allowed to speak on campus, and they've made one exception in the past.

And they say they're not going to make an exception for Emmeline Pankhurst, who is scary in the sense that she and her followers in England have been doing things like chaining themselves to the gates outside 10 Downing St. and getting arrested. They believe really that the fight for suffrage has been so many decades and gotten nowhere, that any means necessary are at this point allowed.

So Pankhurst is banned from speaking on campus. And this is a kind of a big fracas across the country 'cause people like to take potshots at Harvard, of course. But also it's kind of hilarious that Harvard is so terrified of this tiny little woman, Emmeline Pankhurst (laughter). They prevent her from speaking on campus, and so she speaks off-campus in this kind of dancehall on Brattle Street in Harvard Square.

And just pay attention even to that alone, there's so much in there that reappears in Wonder Woman 30 years later when Marston creates Wonder Woman in 1941. He's a grown man. He's a sort of prominent person at that point. But one of the things that's a defining element of Wonder Woman is that if a man binds her in chains, she loses all of her Amazonian strength.

And so in almost every episode of the early comics - the ones that Marston wrote - she's chained up or she's roped up, it's usually chains. And then she has to break free of these chains. And that's - Marston would always say - in order to signify her emancipation from men. But those chains are a really important part of the feminist and suffrage struggles of the 1910s that Marston was - had a kind of front row seat for.

GROSS: Because those women were chained up?

LEPORE: Yeah because they would chain themselves - the women chained themselves to the gates outside the White House in protest. There were suffrage parades. Women would march in chains. I mean, they imported that iconography from the abolitionist campaigns of the 19th century that women had been involved in, of course, because the suffrage movement in the United States emerges out of the abolition campaign. And chains become a really important signal.

And women, in the wake of emancipation and in the aftermath of the Civil War, really turned to the imagery of chains and enslavement and the language of enslavement to talk about the ways in which they have not yet been fully emancipated, that they are themselves slaves. So Sanger, for instance, you know, she publishes a collection of letters from women called "Motherhood In Bondage," which is - it's all over the place, the rhetoric and the language of enslavement.

GROSS: However, we should acknowledge - and we'll get into this in more detail later - there's a big kind of fetishistic sexual aspect to the bondage and the chains in Wonder Woman. We'll get to that a little later.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So...

LEPORE: That's just a little teaser, Terry, right there.

GROSS: That's just a little teaser, yeah.

LEPORE: Stay tuned, the bondage is coming up.

GROSS: But this next thing is good enough to hold us over for a while.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I mean, one of the really amazing things you've uncovered in your book is that the creator of Wonder Woman, William Moulton Marston, lived in a menage a trois eventually. But earlier in his life, there were two women he was with. There was his wife, Sadie Elizabeth Holloway, and another woman, Olive Byrne. And Olive Byrne was Margaret Sanger's niece. And so they were in a relationship together. He had four children by those two women, and, of course, they couldn't make it public. But describe a little bit this arrangement that he had first with these two women.

LEPORE: So Marston married his childhood sweetheart in 1915 when they both graduated from college. He graduated from Harvard that year, and she graduated from Mount Holyoke. This is Sadie Elizabeth Holloway who becomes Betty (ph) Marston. And she was quite an interesting and ambitious woman, a really career-oriented woman of that generation. You know, one of the first generations of women to go to college.

And Marston then embarks on an academic career. He first teaches at American University and then in something of a scandal, he loses that job. And he ends up teaching at Tufts in 1925, where he falls in love with one of his students who's a senior there, Olive Byrne. Olive Byrne's mother is Ethel Byrne, who is the sister of Margaret Sanger.

Ethel Byrne and Margaret Sanger together founded what becomes Planned Parenthood in 1916, when they opened the first birth control clinic in the United States in Brooklyn. And they are immediately arrested within days of the clinic opening. An undercover policewoman comes in and asks for contraceptives, and Ethel Byrne explains how to use a pessary or a diaphragm.

Ethel Byrne is convicted on obscenity charges and sent to prison for a 30-day sentence. And she goes on a hunger strike. And she says, this is more important than the right to vote because women are dying every day in New York of abortions - of illegal abortions. They can't get contraception. And I will gladly give my life for this cause.

She's then actually quietly ushered offstage by Margaret Sanger, who makes a deal with the governor of New York that if Ethel Byrne will never again be involved in the birth control movement, she can be pardoned and her life will be saved. And so Ethel Byrne really sort of disappears from the birth control movement at that point, much against her will.

Meanwhile, though, she puts a lot of hope in her daughter whom she sends to college, she sends to Tufts with money that Margaret Sanger's new husband gives to her. So he's paying for all of Byrne's education.

Olive Byrne falls in love with Marston when he's teaching at Tufts for a year. And he at that point has developed some pretty unconventional ideas about sex and gender that come from his work as a psychologist and from other kinds of proclivities that I think are unreachable to the historian.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LEPORE: He - so he says to his wife, you know, I've met somebody, and here's the deal. Either she can come live with us and we will live as a threesome, or I will leave you for her. And Holloway, who is this woman with a law degree and a master's degree and she's working in Washington at that time, she really wants to have a family. And she goes for this six-hour walk, and she thinks it over.

And if you think about the 1920s, and if you go back and read magazines from the 1920s, a lot of the same magazines that we have now, you know, the New Republic, The Nation, they all have these stories in them every other issue. What are women to do? Can they both work and have a family? They're just like magazines today. It's incredibly depressing to read magazines from the 1920s because the stories basically could be written today.

And Holloway's been wondering this, too. She wants to have a family. She wants to have a career. Her husband now wants to have a mistress who's 10 years younger than she is.

And she decides OK, this deal will work for me because I will keep my job and this - her sort of deal back to Marston, at least as I can reconstruct it is yeah, that - this arrangement has to work for me. She's going to raise my children. She can be your mistress, but she will raise my children. And so they decide to live together as a threesome.

GROSS: So they had to keep this a secret. I mean, you couldn't really get away with that.

LEPORE: Yeah, I mean...

GROSS: So what was the back story that they made up to explain Olive Byrne's presence in the family with her children?

LEPORE: Yeah, yeah. It's this crazy bohemian thing. But they're living in the suburbs. They live in Rye, N.Y., in this big house in the suburbs. Well, they come up with a story, which actually they tell the children. The children don't know what the arrangement is either. So that's really important. They say that Olive Byrne married a guy named William Richard in 1928 when she was in Los Angeles - they were all in Hollywood briefly - and had two kids in quick succession. And then he died. He had been gassed during the war. And unfortunately, she has no pictures of him and no stories about him. And no one should really ever ask about him because it's too painful.

GROSS: So here they are, this unconventional family with this huge secret. But Marston is the inventor of the lie detector test and bills himself as somebody who cannot be deceived, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I guess he can find out the truth through this, you know, machine that he invented. And that's just so bizarre.

LEPORE: Yeah. It's so bizarre. I think they thought it was very funny like that putting one over on everybody. So the funniest thing of it all to me is they have this really triangular family arrangement, right? But in the '30s, Olive Byrne takes a job as a staff writer for Family Circle Magazine...

(LAUGHTER)

LEPORE: ...Writing advice for housewives. Like, Family Circle starts in 1932. It's a give-away at the grocery store. And the stories that she writes are sort of how to raise your children in the most conventional possible way. It's just so funny. But her stories are - they all take the same form. She's a widow with two children. And she needs advice about, you know, what to decide to do. One of her kids is always lying. And she doesn't know what to do.

And so she goes to see the famous psychologist William Moulton Marston. And she goes to his house. Takes the train to his house. And then she walks up the hill. And she sits with him in his study. And they tease one another. And it's very flirty. And I think they just had a blast with - they were just pulling that - I mean, it is hilariously bizarre.

GROSS: So if you're just joining us, my guest is Jill Lepore. And she's the author of "The Secret History Of Wonder Woman." And, boy, is that history secret and interesting (laughter). And she's also a staff writer for The New Yorker and a professor of American history at Harvard. Let's take a short break here. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAN AUERBACH SONG, "HEARTBROKEN, IN DESPAIR")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Jill Lepore. And she's the author of "The Secret History Of Wonder Woman." And the book is filled with interesting things that she revealed that had been secret in the past, including the fact that William Moulton Marston, who created Wonder Woman, had a mistress and lived with her and her children. And there was a third woman who sometimes entered the story. So there was his wife Elizabeth Holloway, his mistress Olive Byrne, and another woman named Marjorie Wilkes Huntley, who kind of was in and out of the family.

LEPORE: She lived in the attic. I just think that's important.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So what do you know about the arrangement that they had? In addition...

LEPORE: Well...

GROSS: ...To like, you know, you said that, you know, Olive took care of the children while Marston's wife fulfilled her ambition to have a career and left her children in the care of Olive, who, you know, did a lot of the parenting. But let me ask just overtly, like, what do you know about the sexual relationship they had?

LEPORE: That's a really tricky question. I - you know, three of their children survive and are still around. And I talked to all of them. And then the widow of the fourth child is around. I talked to her, too. And, you know, I don't know that most children know what their parents do sexually. I don't think that they knew either. They knew a lot less than most of us do. I spent some time trying to figure out what the house was like because I couldn't quite - I couldn't quite picture the arrangement. But the deal was, to the degree that I can, like, satisfy everybody's curiosity. The deal is that there was a bathroom on the second floor that had a bedroom on either side of it, so they were adjoining. And one bedroom was Holloway's and one bedroom was Olive Byrne's. And Marston could go from bedroom to bedroom without having to enter the hallway. So he could just go through the bathroom. So the arrangements were largely veiled from the children.

That's why I mention Marjorie Wilkes Huntley is in the attic. And she's not really necessarily part of that scene. The kids - one of the kids once walked in on their dad with Olive Byrne in bed. And they told - he was told that Daddy was sick and Olive was making him feel better. I don't know (laughter) if they believed that.

I don't really know what they believed. I mean, they - a lot of them said up until the 1990s when finally there's this - kind of a break in the story in the kind of family secrecy, they would say that Olive Byrne was the family housekeeper. And they told kids at school that if they were asked. The only reason they even figured anything out ever was long after Marston was dead, Olive Byrne's son Donn married Margaret Sanger's granddaughter, whose name was also Margaret Sanger, in 1961.

And she became Margaret Sanger Marston. And she's a pip. And she said, OK, this family is nuts. How come no one knows what the deal is with who - 'cause by this time, the two women had been living together for decades. They lived together for the rest of their lives, long after Marston died in 1947. And she said, look, all right, I'm going to make a deal with you people. Either you tell me what the family situation really was or you'll never see your grandchildren again (laughter).

Like, she just - she's just like, I can't stand this. The secrecy is nuts. It's crazy. And so (laughter) - and so finally sort of the beans were spilled then.

GROSS: Wonder Woman's backstory has to do with Amazon culture. Marston's mistress, Elizabeth Holloway, her favorite book in college was a collection of Sappho's writing. And in popular culture, Sappho and Amazon culture are very, you know, entwined with the idea of lesbian culture.

And I'm wondering if that's - if you see that as a kind of secret thread in "Wonder Woman," too, and perhaps in the relationship between Marston's wife and mistress?

LEPORE: Yeah, that's a really good question. And here, too, the empiricist in me has to say, I don't quite know. I mean, certainly if you read the comics, there's a whole lot of lesbianism in the comic books themselves. It's just completely clear. And it's one of the reasons critics opposed "Wonder Woman" and wanted "Wonder Woman" to stop being published.

And in 1954, when Fredric Wertham, the psychiatrist who damns comics in his book "Seduction Of The Innocent," writes about "Wonder Woman." And he - his whole point is that Wonder Woman is the lesbian counterpart to Batman. Wertham thinks that Batman and Robin are lovers. And so - and he thinks comic books should be banned.

And Wonder Woman's problems is that Wonder Woman is a lesbian. So there's a lot of that going on in the comics and in how critics read the comics. What was going on between the women in the family, you know, I've asked their kids. The kids are like, oh, I don't know. That doesn't seem too plausible to me. But who knows? I really don't feel like as a historian I know. I mean, people have different ideas about this, right?

Historians have different procedures and methods and ways to think about what we can know and what we can't know and what our obligations are. But my general premise is these people lived and died. Their children know them better than I do. Unless I have documentary evidence that tells me one thing or another, I'm not confident to draw a conclusion.

GROSS: Let's talk about how Marston came to create "Wonder Woman." You know, he starts off in the entertainment industry by working in Hollywood for a while as a psychologist and consultant. And Marston thinks, what you really need is a woman superhero. Why does he think that?

LEPORE: Well, if you think about the problems with the comic books, Marston says it's their bloodcurdling masculinity that's the problem, that they're just too violent. It's really the violence, but it's also the domination. So the reason Superman looks like a fascist to some literary critics is he's kind of a demigod but also he overpowers everybody.

And this is - you know, in the shadow of what's going on in Europe, it's very terrifying to imagine kids sort of worshipping this Ubermensch. And so he says, look, if you had a female superhero, her powers could all be about love and truth and beauty. And you could also sell your comic books better to girls. And that would be really important and great because she could show girls that they could do anything and that there would just be all these additional perks to gain if you would feature a female superhero.

GROSS: So he gets the green light. And he suggests that she be visually modeled on the Varga Girls. And the Varga Girls are - they're pinups. They're illustrations of very scantily clad young women in very seductive poses. And you have side-by-side images in your book (laughter) of, like, you know, Varga Girl illustrations and Wonder Woman. Can you describe some of the similarities?

LEPORE: Yeah. So it was hard to track those down because I went to the stacks in Widener Library at Harvard and pulled all the issues of Esquire - the Varga Girl centerfolds appeared in Esquire in the 1940s - and paged through every issue, bound volume. And all the Varga Girls have been sliced out. (Laughter) You know, they're very sexy pinup girls. And Harvard boys of the 1940s took advantage of them and brought them to their dorm rooms. So it was hard to get my hands (laughter) on the Varga Girls. That's just - that's for radio, Terry, to suggest just how hot they really were.

The Varga Girls are - they're really different from earlier conventions of female beauty. I mean, think - it's like the Betty Grable kind of bombshell. Like, these are - you know, fighter pilots are painting Betty Grable on their - sides of their planes. There's a kind of leggy, sultry, athletic, healthy, high-heeled, perky - they're wearing the skimpiest possible sort of swimsuit-like costumes. Their shirts are always unbuttoned. And they're enticing. It's a really different feel if you think about other contemporary sort of '30s - like, they're not Rosalind Russell or Katharine Hepburn.

DAVIES: Jill Lepore's book "The Secret History Of Wonder Woman" is out in paperback. We'll hear more from Lepore after a break. Also, John Powers reviews a new documentary about Cary Grant and film critic David Edelstein tells us about "My Cousin Rachel," based on the Daphne du Maurier novel. I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUPERT GREGSON-WILLIAMS' "WONDER WOMAN'S WRATH")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. We're listening to Terry's interview with Jill Lepore, author of "The Secret History Of Wonder Woman." It's now out in paperback. Lepore tells the story of Wonder Woman's creator, William Moulton Marston. When we left off, Lepore was telling Terry Wonder Woman's look was inspired by Varga Girl pinups, illustrations of scantily clad young women in seductive poses.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: So he models Wonder Woman, in part, on the Varga Girls, which is so interesting because his conception is of this, like, empowered woman, but the way she looks is for the sexual arousal of men.

LEPORE: Yeah. So there's no simple story here. There's actually - there are a lot of people that, I think, get very upset at what Marston was doing and people who got upset at the time for reasons that people would get upset thinking about what he's doing now - like, wait, is this a feminist project that's supposed to help girls decide to go to college and have careers or is this just, like, soft porn? You know, it - actually, that was the question in the 1940s, too.

GROSS: But her image - Wonder Woman's image was also influenced by photos and illustrations of suffragists.

LEPORE: Yeah. And that's the piece that's missing. And that's the part that I really wanted to pay attention to and try to recover because you can look at Wonder Woman from the 1940s and you can see. It's immediately apparent to you, the fetishism, right? You can also immediately see the feminism, that when Wonder Woman is out - in those early stories that Marston wrote, she's doing things like organizing working women to go on strike for equal pay with men. (Laughter) She's running for president. I mean, they're really very overtly feminist stories. But then there's the - where she's always being chained up and she's gagged, and so it was important for me to think about where that came from.

And Harry G. Peter, who is the artist who Marston hired - specifically hired to draw Wonder Woman and really had not been involved in comics and wasn't a particularly good comics illustrator, had known this woman Annie Lucasta Rogers. They were together staff artists at Judge magazine in the 19-teens, where they both worked on the suffrage page, where they do cartoons - editorial cartoons featuring suffragists. And one of the things that Lou Rogers always did was draw this sort of allegorical, iconic Amazonian-like woman breaking chains.

GROSS: And in terms of the storyline, Marston hired Joy Hummel to help write Wonder Woman. And Marston's mistress, Olive, gave her one book and told her, read this and you'll know how to write Wonder Woman. And that book was...

LEPORE: Margaret Sanger's "Woman And The New Race."

GROSS: So this is just so interesting, that Wonder Woman is a combination of, like, Varga Girl pinup imagery and a book by Margaret Sanger and images of suffragists. It's such an interesting collection of, like, thoughts and ideas and images in this one superhero.

LEPORE: Yeah. It's a tangle. And it, too - and it's - and a little bit kind of that puzzle of that - like Lady Gaga is.

(LAUGHTER)

LEPORE: You know, like, when I look at Lady Gaga - and you're like, huh, what do I think about her? You know, that Wonder Woman looks like that to me, too. I mean, she didn't look like that when I started. But now I'm like, oh, she's way more complicated and rich. Like, there's no wonder that she kind of permeates the culture and has lasted so long. There's a lot going on there.

GROSS: So Wonder Woman is this mix, as we've been saying, of kind of fetishistic, pinup-girl imagery and suffragism and feminism. And as you pointed out, in most of her adventures, she's bound up in chains and has to liberate herself, has to free herself. So that kind of has two associations.

One is that, like a lot of the feminists, the suffragists used to chain themselves in protest and use chains as a symbol of their bondage. At the same time, there's a lot of fetishism in that, too, I think, in the way that Wonder Woman is often bound up. So can you talk about that kind of, like, double level that the bondage is working on?

LEPORE: Yeah. It became really controversial in the 1940s. Wonder Woman was banned partly 'cause she was so scantily dressed. But members of the editorial advisory board that - what became DC Comics - had together resigned in protest over Wonder Woman and the bondage 'cause guys - like, soldiers - there's this really fascinating letter from a GI stationed maybe - I don't know - maybe somewhere in Texas who writes to say, like, I just love these Wonder Woman comics. I mean, I just - the chains and the heels, those boots.

(LAUGHTER)

LEPORE: You're just like, aahh while reading the letter.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LEPORE: And, you know, Gaines forwards this letter to Marston. Marston says, hey. I think that's great. I think that's swell. Look, you know, it's completely harmless. Like, I'm a psychologist. I have a Ph.D. from Harvard. I will assure you this is completely harmless. I think all the more power to you.

Like, well, unless someone's hurting someone, anything goes, which has actually been Marston's big principle. This book that he writes in 1928, "Emotions Of Normal People," is all about - you know what? Don't think about your sexual behavior as abnormal, no matter what it is. Don't worry about what your neighbors are doing in bed. Whatever you're doing is normal. And you should just love yourself.

And it's actually this incredibly moving thing to read. I mean, he's really opposed to prejudice against nonconformists. And it's a kind of odd place to exert that intellectual leadership - through a comic book. But he is, in fact, exerting it. I mean, you've got to think carefully about what he's trying to do there. But he's the - he thinks all these fantasies are harmless unless anybody's being actually harmed. (Laughter)

But DC Comics was really concerned - rightly so. And so they keep trying to find another psychologist or luminary who can tell them - is Marston right? Like, is this actually OK, or is this not OK? So they hired this woman Lauretta Bender, who's a psychiatrist who runs the children's ward at Bellevue Hospital. And they send all the Wonder Woman comic books to her. And they say, what do you think?

GROSS: And what does she say?

LEPORE: (Laughter) You see, she says, you know what? I love Wonder Woman. She thinks it's kind of great. She's like, OK. Marston is a kook, and you shouldn't believe a word he says (laughter) 'cause Marston writes these letters that are just like, whoa. But she thinks comic books are like folklore. They're like the "Grimm's Fairy Tales."

And we don't get too concerned about Little Red Riding Hood and Big Bad Wolf. I mean, we understand that that - or, you know, now we might do a literary reading of those stories and what they tell us about famine in early modern Europe or something (laughter).

But at the time, people thought, OK. There's a lot of interesting symbolism in those stories. And it helps kids work out things like their fear of death. And Bender thought that it helped kids work out the struggle between the sexes.

GROSS: Because William Marston really believed in women's rights, and the suffrage movement was kind of formative for him - you know, he put a lot of that into Wonder Woman. But, you know, at home, he has basically two wives, a wife and a mistress. He has children with both of them. And I keep asking myself, was he being very sexist and - you know, at home by having, like, two wives, basically? Or was this a good arrangement for the two women? - and that, you know, his wife was able to have a career and have the mistress, you know, raise the children. What did the women think of it? Did they see it as empowering or as, you know, a man domineering their lives and them not each having a husband to themselves? I have a feeling you can't answer those questions. But just thinking about it is so interesting. I wish we could answer those questions.

LEPORE: Yeah. Yeah. No, I do, too. But I have two things to say. One is that when Holloway does write these letters in 1963 saying what it was like...

GROSS: This is the wife.

LEPORE: ...She - yeah. She says, look. You know, we both loved him. And he loved us. And there was love-making for all. That's the phrase she uses. And the kids all say it was actually a delightful way to grow up - that they were deeply loved by everybody in different ways. So I actually think that it'd be better, really, to turn the camera. Like, we have a telescope, and we're trying to look through the window of their bedroom, right? It will be better to take that telescope, zoom back out and look at the larger culture and say, look. Why do people still joke - I'm sure you have friends - heterosexual couples - who are both working and raising kids who say, sheesh, you know what we need? We need a wife (laughter), you know, to stay home and take care of the kids. But that is actually - still remains a problem - that the basic, structural problems that are attendant on thinking about women as political actors and women as economic actors on a stage of equality with men have never yet been solved.

And they have actually been barely addressed. In fact, they're put to one side by each generation. And there are all these crazy patches that are patched all on top of these problems. And so I love the family story.

I think it's fascinating (laughter). It's dramatic and interesting. But I hope that what it causes people to reflect on is the duration and the stubbornness and the lack of advance in this struggle for women's equality.

GROSS: And one more thing - I just think it's so interesting that the two women, the wife and the mistress, remain living together for the rest of their lives decades after William Marston dies.

LEPORE: Yeah. They lived together for years and years. Holly doesn't die until 1993 at the age of 100. Olive Byrne does a few years before her. But they're inseparable. The family refers to them as the ladies. And, you know, the ladies went (laughter) everywhere together. They were devoted to one another. They were also devoted to the memory of Marston. But they were incredibly close.

GROSS: So let's get back to the connection between Margaret Sanger and Wonder Woman. And, again, you wrote about Sanger in The New Yorker in your history of Planned Parenthood article because she founded Planned Parenthood. She started the birth-control movement. And Sanger's niece was Marston's mistress. Sanger's book was one of the things that was used to create the character of Wonder Woman.

So in researching the story of Wonder Woman, what are some of the things you learned about Margaret Sanger that perhaps you did not know before that helped put her life in a slightly new light for you?

LEPORE: Yeah. Well, it was actually - I had been working on this piece for The New Yorker about Planned Parenthood, and I was reading Sanger's papers. And I love to read people's oral histories 'cause there's something different about an oral history than when you read people's old mail.

And in Sanger's papers, there's an oral history done with Olive Byrne, who is referred to as Olive Richard in the oral history, and with Sanger's granddaughter, Margaret Sanger Marston. And I - (laughter) wait a minute. The people who've done the oral histories of Margaret Sanger are members of Marston's family. And it just completely knocked me out.

And I was like - to realize that there was this tie between Wonder Woman and Margaret Sanger. So I did come to see Sanger through that lens. You see Sanger as a family member. I guess she was really close to Olive Byrne's children. She visited them all the time. They visited her. She was pretty close to her own grandchildren.

Both Sanger and her sister Ethel Byrne had basically abandoned their children when they were young women in order to pursue the cause of birth control. And their children never forgave them for it. But they were both utterly devoted grandmothers, which - something, really, I had never really thought about when you think about the history of the continuing struggle for birth control, right?

This has been over a century since Margaret Sanger started publishing "Woman Rebel" and demanding birth control - that these women gave up their own motherhood, in a sense, to do what they did. And there's something kind of beautiful about the way they are able to be grandmothers. But it made me think a lot about the ties across generations that are obscured in when we think about the history of women.

GROSS: So having deeply immersed yourself in the story of Wonder Woman and in the Wonder Woman comics, what do you think of them now? Do you find them enjoyable? Were you a fan of them before? Are you a fan of them now?

LEPORE: No, I was never a fan. I never read comic books as a kid. I was far too much of a geek to do that. I remember watching the Lynda Carter TV show, which started in '75, '76, and then switching to watch "The Six Million Dollar Man" 'cause I kind of had a crush on him.

But I didn't - (laughter) you know, like, my brother watched Lynda Carter and "Wonder Woman." I got fascinated by the story because I'm a political historian. It seemed to me there was a really important political story that had been missed that is sort of invisible - basically, as invisible as Wonder Woman's jet, if you just read the comic books.

So I do have a different appreciation for them. But I actually had an experience just recently that really carried home to me the force of Wonder Woman and why so many women that I meet tell me, oh, my God. I always loved Wonder Woman when I was a kid. I had the lunchbox. I dressed up as Wonder Woman for every Halloween. I had the doll. My brother once stole it, and I had to beat him up.

Like, you know, women my age have incredible attachment to this character, although they know nothing about her and. I was always kind of puzzled by that because a kinkiness kind of came across to me more. But I was sitting at my kitchen table with a little girl who was 8 years old who was over visiting. Kid is in foster care. And we're just looking for something to do.

And she found this box of postcards I have on my kitchen shelf. They're covers of original DC Comics from the 1940s. She started picking through them. She pulled out all the Wonder Womans. And she lined them up in a row. And she just looked at them. And then she looked at me and she said, she is so strong. It just knocked me out. Like, here is this - this is why. This is why Wonder Woman touches people.

GROSS: Jill Lepore, thank you for talking with us, and thank you for writing this really interesting book.

LEPORE: Thanks. It was a lot of fun.

DAVIES: Jill Lepore's book "The Secret History Of Wonder Woman" is out in paperback. Coming up, John Powers reviews a new documentary about Cary Grant. This is FRESH AIR.

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