Jill Lepore’s history of superhero blends personal, political

Historians in the News
tags: Jill Lepore, Wonder Woman

In a nod to her latest subject, the historian Jill Lepore made it clear that she wasn’t about to back down from a fight for justice.

“If you want to doubt that Wonder Woman is a feminist project, we’ll have to take that outside,” the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History jokingly warned a Radcliffe audience on Thursday while discussing her new book, “The Secret History of Wonder Woman.”

As it turns out, explained Lepore, the superheroine’s backstory is not only firmly rooted in feminist ideals, it’s also firmly rooted at Harvard. The creator of the most popular female cartoon character in history was a Harvard graduate, William Moulton Marston, who earned his bachelor’s degree, law degree, and Ph.D. in psychology from Harvard, and whose personal life and beliefs, deeply influenced by 20th-century feminists, were often splashed across the pages of Wonder Woman comic books.

“Marston’s comic book,” said Lepore, “is actually autobiographical.”

Wonder Woman first appeared in 1941. People and events from Marston’s life showed up regularly in the strip, including his efforts to use his lie-detector test, based on a person’s systolic blood pressure and developed and tested at Harvard, in court. Where Marston failed, Wonder Woman succeeded, using her magic lasso of truth on the witness stand on a woman suspected of leading a double life as the villain known as the Cheetah...

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