TERRY GROSS, HOST:
The most popular female comic book hero of all time has a secret past. That's revealed in the new book "The Secret History Of Wonder Woman" by my guest Jill Lepore. 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' aunt. Wonder Woman's costume was inspired by his interest in erotic pin-up 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 before he created Wonder Woman, and the history of Planned Parenthood, which focused on its founder, Margaret Sanger. Jill Lepore is a staff writer for The New Yorker and a professor of American history at Harvard.
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 more as a metaphor...
GROSS: ...Just describe Wonder Woman, the super hero character.
JILL LEPORE: (Laughter) 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 'cause they can have no man in Paradise Island.
So she stitches for Wonder Woman 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 - and 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 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 of suffrage and feminism and birth control movements - sort of an uncanny number and complexity of ties. But it starts really - 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 Street 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 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. They prevent her from speaking on campus, and so she speaks on off-campus in this kind of dance hall 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 a 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 really an 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 - three women chained themselves to the gates outside the White House in protest. Their suffrage parades - women would march in chains. I mean, they imported that iconography from the abolitionist campaigns of the 19th century that women had 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.
LEPORE: That's a little teaser, Terry.
GROSS: That's just a little teaser. Yeah.
LEPORE: Stay tuned. Bondage is coming up.
GROSS: But this next thing is good enough to hold us over for a while.
GROSS: I mean, one of the really amazing things that 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 Sadie Elizabeth Holloway, who becomes Betty Marston. And she was quite an interesting and ambitious woman, a really career-oriented woman of that generation of - you know, one of the first generations of women to go to college.
And Marston embarks on academic career. He first teaches at American University, and then, in something of the 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 up 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 contraception - contraceptives, and Ethyl Byrne explains how to use a pessary or a diaphragm.
Ethyl 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 die every day in New York of abortions - of illegal abortions. They can't get contraception. And I will gladly give my life in this cause. As she's then, actually, quietly ushered offstage by Margaret Sanger, who makes a deal with the governor of New York that if Ethyl Byrne will never again be involved in the birth control movement, she can be pardoned, and her life will be saved.
And so Ethyl 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 Olive 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.
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's this woman with a law degree and a master's degree - and she's working - 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 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 'cause 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, 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. (Laughter)
GROSS: What's 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, New York, 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 'cause 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.
GROSS: I guess he can find out the truth though 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. In a certain way, it is very funny, like, that they're 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...
LEPORE: ...Writing advice for housewives. Like, Family Circle, which starts in 1932 - it's a give-away at the grocery store. And the stories she writes are sort of how to raise your children in the most conventional possible way. (Laughter) 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 for 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. She 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 new book "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.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Jill Lepore and she's the author of the new book "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.
GROSS: OK, so what do you know about the arrangement that they had? In addition...
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 survived and are still around and I talked to all of them and then the window 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 and 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 was 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 how 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 was this kind of a break in the story and 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. They really, you know, were not ever really allowed to ask questions about it. It was pretty secret. The only reason they even figured anything out ever was long after Marston was dead. Olive Byrne's son Don 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? Because by this time, the two women had been living together for decades. They lived together for rest of our 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. Like, she just - she's just like I can't stand this - the secrecy is nuts, it's crazy. How could you people live this way for years and years and years and no one even knows like whose parents are who? And so finally sort of the beans were spilled then.
GROSS: Just while we're talking about this, Marston's aunt, Carolyn Keatley, believed in the teachings of a book called "The Aquarian Gospels Of Jesus The Christ," that was basically a sexual book - a book of in part sexual beliefs. What were some of the beliefs in there that Marston perhaps subscribes to at least during part of his life?
LEPORE: Well, his aunt believed in what was called then Aquarianism. And it's not really a sexual - it's a kind of - it's a fringe religion, but Marston's aunt was interested in all kinds of other things. And in 1925 and 1926, she held meetings at her apartment in Boston that Marston and his wife and Olive Byrne went to and Marjorie Wilkes Huntley went to. And I found in the archives this 95-page type written set of meeting minutes, like meeting by meeting. And they're all - it's clear that what it is is kind of a call to female sexual power that they attended and took very careful notes on.
GROSS: You write that there's a lot in the minutes about Marston's theory of dominance and submission. Females quote, "in their relation to males expose their bodies and use various legitimate methods of the love sphere to create in males submission to them, the women mistresses, or love leaders, in order that they the mistress might submit in passion to the males." So I don't even understand what he's talking about there really. Like, I don't quite get the order there, but obviously it's about dominance and submission in some way. So that's William Marston who's saying that at these meetings?
LEPORE: Yeah, I think it's Marston, but it's hard to say. I mean, I think he's the only man there. But there's a lot in the minutes about proper constellation of a man and his mistresses and the various women and the love girls that should be around him that seems to sort of describe the arrangement that Marston came to find to be ideal. Marston is a scientist during these years. He's writing this book called "Emotions Of Normal People," which is published in 1928 and pretty much destroys his academic career. But he has a fairly complicated set of ideas as a psychologist about emotional life. And he believes it's really important to submit to kindness, that - not to submit to a cruel master, but to submit to kindness. That happiness is found not in dominance, but in submission. This is hard to read from our distance. It's a - it's such a quirky - what do you call that, like, on a railroad? Like a spur. It's a spur that has a dead stop at the end of it on a train track. It doesn't lead to some other descending idea in psychology, so it's a little hard to kind of contextual.
GROSS: Wonder Woman's back story 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'd 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, I think that's a really good question. And here to 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. That'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." 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" problem is that Wonder Woman is a lesbian. And 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 and they're 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 way or another, I'm not confident to draw a conclusion.
GROSS: Jill Lepore will be back in the second half of the show. She's the author of the new book "The Secret History of Wonder Woman." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Jill Lepore, author of the new book "The Secret History Of Wonder Woman." Lepore reveals the secret story of Wonder Woman's creator, William Moulton Marston, who it turns out lived with his wife, his mistress and the children that he fathered with each of them. One of Marston's inspirations for Wonder Woman was the women's rights activist and founder of Planned Parenthood Margaret Sanger, who happened to be the aunt of his mistress. Wonder Woman made her first appearance in comics in 1941, three years after Superman, two years after Batman. She remains the most popular female superhero of all time.
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 how does he get involved in the comic book world?
LEPORE: Yeah. So he's blacklisted from academia because of his family arrangements, which are kind of found out. He goes to Hollywood, that's fun, it doesn't quite work out. He comes back to New York and really scrambles in the 1930s. He doesn't have much a way to support himself. He becomes a very popular kind of pop-psych writer who writes for all kinds of magazines. He's mainly leaving off his wife's income. She's working at MetLife and Olive Byrne's more writing for Family Circle. But comic books start in 1933-34 and then the first is superhero, Superman, starts in 1938, Batman follows in 1939. But then immediately there's a pretty big crisis around comic books, which become scandalous. And people start wanting to burn them and people think they're bad for kids and that Superman's a fascist and Batman carries a gun for a while and American's are really opposed to that. So there's a pretty big wave of critics damning comic books. And so the guy who publishes Superman, M.C. Gaines, decides he wants to hire someone to help him out. And he reads an article by Olive Byrne in Family Circle about how William Moulton Marston thinks comic books might be good for kids. And so he calls Marston into his office.
GROSS: 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 there it's - Marston says it's their bloodcurdling masculinity that the problem. That they're just too violent, it's really the violence. But it's also the domination, it's the reason Superman looks like a fascist, too. Some literary critics say he's kind of 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 worshiping this Ubermensch. And so he says, look, if you had a female superhero she could - 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 Gaines if he 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 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 I paged through every issue bound volume and all the Varga girls had been sliced out. (Laughter) They're very sexy pinup girls and the Harvard boys of the 1940s took advantage of them, and brought them to their dorm rooms. So it was hard to get my hands on the Varga girls.
LEPORE: That's for radio, Terry, to suggest as to 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 - there's a kind of cosmopolitanism to the Varga girls, I guess I would say. They're not sort of all-American. They have a kind of exoticism that Wonder Woman has, too. I mean, she's not supposed to be from the United States and that's kind of a piece of it. 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.
GROSS: OK. 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 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 was doing now. Like, wait, is this is a feminist project that's supposed to help girls to decide to go to college and have careers or is this just, like, soft porn? You know? 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 males. She's running for president. I mean, they're really very overly feminist stories, but then there's 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's 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 19teens 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 story line, Marston hired Joy Hummel to help write Wonder Woman. And Marston's mistress, Olive, gave her one book and told her to read this and you'll know how to write Wonder Woman. And that book was...
LEPORE: Margaret Sanger's "Woman And The New Race." And I was totally thrilled to find that out. I found Joy Hummel. She's turned 90 this year. It took me a long time to find her. People hadn't known that a woman wrote Wonder Woman in the 1940s. It was also a woman editor who worked on Wonder Woman in the 1940s. It was really exciting to go - I talked to the daughter of the editor and to talk to Hummel and get their version of what it was like in the 1940s for women in comics.
GROSS: So this is just so interesting that Wonder Woman as 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 entangled in it, too. It's a little bit kind of that puzzle of that, like, Lady Gaga is.
LEPORE: You know, you look at Lady Gaga and you're like what I do I think about her? You know. On the one hand, but on the other hand. That Wonder Woman looks like that to me, too. 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: Well, there's even more going on there. She has this magic lasso, which connects to the fact that William Marston, Wonder Woman's creator, also created the lie detector.
LEPORE: Yeah. Well, Marston throws everything and the kitchen sink into his comic books because he's not really the greatest writer of fiction. He wrote a novel and it's very good, it's really autobiographical weirdly. Wonder Woman actually is autobiographical. So all these things that happened in Wonder Woman happened to Marston, like, this, you know, Professor Tsukino (ph) gets told by Dean Sourpuss he can never return to campus again, which is pretty much what happens to Marston every time he has a teaching job, or, you know, Wonder Woman tries to get her lasso introduced as evidence in a court room, Marston was always trying to do that too. The other thing is that Wonder Woman is always kind of leaping over the gates of Holliday College, which looks surprisingly like the gates of Harvard College that women couldn't get into.
GROSS: And the bracelets that Wonder Woman wears, her magic bracelets that can stop bullets, those are modeled on bracelets that he gave his mistress?
LEPORE: Yeah, he gave them to all Olive Byrnes...
GROSS: Not that they could stop bullets. They just look the same.
LEPORE: No. No, no, no, no. He give them to Olive Byrne in 1928, which is the year they celebrated as their anniversary. And in the Family Circle magazine story from the 1940s, he says, you know, Wonder Woman's bracelets are based on yours, and so it's not like a disputed thing. But the funny thing is even that the family kind of erases, or Elizabeth Holloway erases because decades later when she's asked about Wonder Woman's bracelets, this woman from Berkeley who's writing a PhD dissertation in the 1970s about Wonder Woman, she writes to Marston - Holloway and she says, where did Wonder Woman get her bracelets? Holloway says oh, a student of Dr. Marston's used to wear them. Like, she's been living with Olive Byrne for decades at that point. They're really committed to keeping the family story a secret.
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 because she was a scantily dressed. But members of the editorial advisory board that - what became DC Comics - had put together resigned in protest over Wonder Woman and the bondage because guys like soldiers - there's this really fascinating letter from a GI stationed - 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, you know.
LEPORE: You're just like ah while reading the letter. And, you know, Gaines forwards this letter to Marston and Marston says hey, I think that's great. I think that's swell, 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 - well, unless someone is hurting someone, anything goes, which is 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 prejudiced 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 thinks all these fantasies are harmless unless anybody's being actually harmed. But DC Comics was really concerned, rightly so, and so they keep trying to find sort of 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: 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 because Marston writes these letters and she's just like whoa. But she thinks comic books are like folklore. They're like the Grimms' fairytales. And we don't get too concerned about "Little Red Riding Hood" and the 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. 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: Let me reintroduce you here. My guest is Jill Lepore. We're talking about her new book "The Secret History Of Wonder Woman." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jill Lepore. She's the author of the new book "The Secret History Of Wonder Woman." She's also a staff writer at The New Yorker and a professor of American history at Harvard. And we're talking about the main person behind Wonder Woman, which was William Marston. So Wonder Woman was the first woman in the League of Justice - or the Justice Society of America, this first collection of superheroes. But in the League of Justice, she was the secretary.
LEPORE: (Laughter) Yeah. Doesn't that stink? Doesn't that just rile you?
LEPORE: Doesn't that just make you want to go out and, like, join a consciousness-raising group? I find that so shocking.
GROSS: (Laughter) But she was also...
LEPORE: I feel like...
GROSS: Go ahead.
LEPORE: I feel like that fact alone could, like, revivify feminism. OK. So the deal is Marston made a deal with Gaines. And he said, Gaines, I think this is going to be a flop. Like, who wants to see a girl? And Marston said, no. No. No. No. Give it six months, and Gaines said OK. Then I'm going to do a poll of my readers. So they did this poll. And the poll was like, should Wonder Woman, even though a woman, be allowed to join the Justice Society? And it was modeled after these polls that Gallup had been doing. Like, should - if a woman ran for president, would you vote for her? And Wonder Woman wins. And so Gaines has to put her in the Justice Society. But he really kind of didn't want to. And Marston doesn't write the Justice Society stories. And a guy who does is like, OK. I don't want her in my boys' club. So he makes her the secretary.
GROSS: What's the difference between how Wonder Woman is written and drawn in the Justice Society of America comics and the way she's drawn and written in the Wonder Woman comics where it's Marston who's overseeing it?
LEPORE: Yeah. So she does nothing in the Justice Society comics. She sort of just looks beautiful. And she tells us, like, there'll be a Justice Society headquarters. And all the guys will be there. And there's, like - some message comes in, and they need to go fly off and, you know, save Europe or something. And Wonder Woman says, oh, I haven't yet typed up last week's meeting minutes. So I'll have to stay behind. But good luck boys.
LEPORE: It's just - it's just maddening. It's just so funny. But the reason that's important is think about how different what Marston was doing than Reilly actually was because those Justice Society stories are swimming along with the current of the culture, right? Everything is like that from the 1940s, right? Except for a few Rosalind Russell movies. But the Marston's out there - he's swimming upstream, man. He's breaking a sweat. He's swimming as hard as he can upstream the other way 'cause he writes - he finally just has a fit. And he says, I'm going to write your Justice Society story. And then he writes one. And it's really weird. But Wonder Woman does actually fly in a rocket out into outer space to do something. You know, which is - it's a measure of the difference between Marston's sense of what women could or could not do and the rest of the culture's sense of that.
GROSS: William Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman, got polio in 1944. A couple of years later, he was diagnosed with cancer. He dies in 1947. Who takes over Wonder Woman after he dies?
LEPORE: Well, his widow - Elizabeth Holloway - writes this knockout letter to DC Comics in which she says, look, hire me because I know everything about Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman is basically a family project. We have all been participating in the creating of Wonder Woman, and I'm a, well, you know, well-accomplished woman. I've been an editor. I know everything about Bill's work. And the guys at DC Comics are like, we're not going to hire Holloway. It's the last thing they want to do.
They hire this guy, Bob Kanigher, who's been on staff. And, you know, this is a kind of a pool of writers and artists who do comics in those years. Kanigher hates Wonder Woman. He's kind of the worst possible person to pick. But the correspondence is actually pretty upsetting because, you know, Kanigher's told to take Holloway out to a really nice lunch and ruffle the old lady's feathers. And then she's sort of banned from coming to the office. And it's a really big transition time for comics anyway 'cause after the Second World War - this is sort of, like, what happens to the Cold War in spy films - after the Second World War, superheroes have no one left to fight. They've mainly been fighting the Axis Powers. So after the Second World War, most comic books are killed.
Wonder Woman carries on, though. And Kanigher reimagines her as in the 1950s as a kind of daffy, besoded, lovestruck girl who all she wants to do is marry Steve Trevor, who's the guy she's rescued, which the guy who's rescued brings her to the United States in the first place. She becomes a model. She - whatever horrible other daffy things to do - she's worse than the Justice Society girl.
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. 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: Yeah. She says look, you know, we both loved him. And he loved us. And there was lovemaking for all. That's the phrase she uses. And the kids will 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 would 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 would 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, jeez, you know what? We need a wife to stay home and take care of the kids. That 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. But 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. 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 the 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 died.
LEPORE: Yeah. They lived together for years and years. Holloway doesn't die until 1993 at the age of 100. Olive Byrne dies a few years before her. But they're inseparable. The family refers to them as the ladies. And, you know, the ladies went everywhere together. They were devoted to one another. They were also devoted to the memory of Marston. But they were incredibly close.
GROSS: My guest is Jill Lepore, author of the new book "The Secret History Of Wonder Woman." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our interview with Jill Lepore, author of the new book "The Secret History Of Wonder Woman," which is in part about the secret history of her creator, William Moulton Marston, who lived with his wife, his mistress and the children he fathered with each of them. His mistress, Olive Byrne, was the niece of women's rights activist Margaret Sanger. Marston drew on Sanger's life as one of the inspirations for Wonder Woman. 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 because there's something different about an oral history then when you read peoples' old mail. And in Sanger's papers, there's an oral history done with Olive Byrne, who's referred to as Olive Richard in the oral history and with Sanger's granddaughter Margaret Sanger Marston. And (laughter) I was just like, wait a minute - the people who have 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 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? That 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 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" because I kind of had a crush on him. But I didn't, 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 the kinkiness kind of came across to me more. But I was sitting in my kitchen table with a little girl who was 8 years old, who's over visiting, kid who's in foster care. And we were just looking for something to do and she found this box of postcards I have on my kitchen shelf and they're covers of original DC Comics from the 1940s. She started picking them. She pulled out all of 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. 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.
GROSS: Jill Lepore is the author of the new book "The Secret History Of Wonder Woman." If you want to see an example of how an image of a suffragist influenced how Wonder Woman was drawn, go to our website - freshair.npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.