Harvard’s Jill Lepore explains how Wonder Woman plays into her history of feminism

Historians in the News
tags: feminism, Jill Lepore, Wonder Woman, Womans History



The author of nine books and a regular contributor to the New Yorker, Jill Lepore commands as large an audience as any historian writing today. But her work ranges well beyond the traditional confines of popular history (presidents, founding fathers, and wars—preferably Revolutionary, Civil, or World). While Lepore has addressed all of these subjects, she has never limited herself to them. Her latest work, The Secret History of Wonder Woman, is her most successful effort yet. As much a history of feminism as a history of Wonder Woman, Lepore’s book—her first confined to the twentieth century—uses material drawn from over twenty archives to ground a narrative that uncovers far more than the origins of the world’s most popular female superhero.  –  Timothy Shenk

Timothy Shenk: You argue that Wonder Woman is “the missing link in the history of the fight for women’s rights.” What does she connect?

Jill Lepore: The book argues against the idea that the struggle for woman’s equality came in waves—that a first wave began in 1848 at Seneca Falls and ended in 1920 with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment; then the second wave began about 1963 with The Feminine Mystique, and went through Roe v. Wade in 1973; and so on. Even though lot of historians have debunked that notion or modified it, it’s still popular. The book reveals that Wonder Woman, which launched in 1941, was actually inspired by the suffragist feminists and birth control activists of the 1910s and was then an inspiration for women who were involved in women’s liberation in the 1960s and the early ’70s. It’s in that sense that Wonder Woman is a missing link.

Shenk: You phrase it beautifully in the book: “The fight for women’s rights hasn’t come in waves. … [It] has been a river, wending.” Nancy Cott, to whom you dedicated the book, has traced the origins of modern feminism to the 1910s and 1920s. These years witnessed major breakthroughs for women’s suffrage around the world, and they’re also when the word “feminism” began to be used. How were they lost to begin with?

Lepore: The wave metaphor began as an attempt to provide a history of the women’s liberation movement, which I think to a lot of people in the 1960s and 1970s seemed to come out of nowhere. Calling the revolution they were waging a second wave was actually a really important attempt to provide a backstory, to remember intellectual forebears who had been forgotten.

Shenk: You get to the 1960s eventually, but the book starts in the 1910s and 1920s, and it captures a remarkably optimistic moment. This was a time when people like the feminist Suzanne La Follette could say that “women have equality almost within their grasp”—we’ve got political equality, so we’re on our way to legal equality, which means all that’s left is economic equality. The confidence of this period is so striking.

Lepore: The women’s rights campaigns of 1910s and ’20s have a kind of lost-in-time quality to them. The long struggle for racial equality is I think far more familiar to most people—that there’s a genealogy that begins with the antislavery movement and continues in the abolitionist movement and then in the struggle against Jim Crow, and that the struggle for racial equality continues on into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and takes different forms. Most high school kids can picture photographs from the 1950s that document that struggle. They have a kind of slide show in their head. But the same cannot be said about the fight for equality for women. Most people don’t carry round in their heads pictures of what suffragists did: their hunger strikes, their vigils, their parades. ...





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