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Wonder Woman and the Unknown: An Interview with Jill Lepore

Jill Lepore's The Secret History of Wonder Woman is a major event in the field of comics history -- it provides a fascinating and multilayered context for the iconic character. Ron Regé, Jr., whose interest in the character and its origins manifested in his own "cover version" and a Q&A on this site, interviewed Lepore by email. We begin with Ron's note to the author. His questions are in italics.

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Illustration by Ron Rege, Jr., inspired by Jill Lepore's text.

I'd like to start out by thanking for you for writing this book! Uncovering the connection between Marston & Sanger is a really big deal! Even though the inherent feminism of Wonder Woman has been ignored or misrepresented for decades, it has always shone through to inspire generations of fans. To this day Wonder Woman exists as a singular example in an American popular culture that rarely presents us with stories led by free & independent women. Almost none of our popular films even pass the simple "Bechdel Test." The appearance of your recent article in The New Yorker really blew my mind, as I've also been on a bit of a journey with the Marstons over the last year or two. I've been involved with comics culture most of my life, but only learned about Marstons' amazing background a few years ago in Les Daniel's Wonder Woman: The Complete History. I was shocked that even in the comics world, the story wasn't very well known. I wondered if journalists outside of comics had ever come across it, and hoped that one day an article might show up in The New Yorker or something like that. I spent a few months drawing my own version of Marston & Peter's original story. I tried to make a version of Diana that was inspired only by the original story & creators as if no other version had ever been made. I spent a lot of time examining the art, and thinking about the people who created it. Having your book suddenly arrive and answer so many of my questions has been really amazing!

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You've noted that two things are noticeable to anyone who picks up the original Wonder Woman comics, the chains and the feminism. There is another thing that seems noticeable: references to a goddess-based belief system. Legends of the Amazons have been used throughout history to point to the idea of an Atlantis of pre-history, a lost and forgotten matriarchy that the "New Age" aims to revive. Some of these ideas caused divisions among early feminists. Annie Besant left the women's movement not to simply join Theosophy, but to become its leader. It's been rumored that Sanger was interested in Theosophy.

The 1943 story "Preistess Zara & The Crimson Flame" presents a cult leader who is exposed as a fraud. In 1942, Edna & Guy Ballard, leaders of the wildly popular (they had a million followers in 1938) "I AM" Ascended Masters movement (an offshoot of Theosophy that spoke of a "Violet Flame"), were accused of mail fraud. Although the Supreme Court overturned their conviction in 1946, they were not allowed to use the mail again until 1954. A popular American New Thought movement was essentially suppressed. "I AM" imagery was a hyper-patriotic. Their newsletters included drawings of strong & beautiful angels, wearing fantastic robes & shimmering costumes, often covered in stars, eagles, and the American flag.

Marston's unrelenting dedication to feminism reminds me of a man named Paschal Beverly Randolph, a mixed-race doctor who traveled the US in the mid-1800s giving lectures that encouraged female sexual pleasure as a remedy for a variety of health issues. His inspiration was Rosicrucianism. His "Sex Magic" wasn't very kinky by today's standards. I am also a huge fan of a woman named Dion Fortune, a noted British occultist who lived from 1890-1946. Her most popular book was called Psychic Self Defense. Apart from writing occult manuals, she wrote a series of novels and short stories. They often involved educated men & women, doctors and the like, who end up with intriguing hidden lives involving interactions with other groups & "lodges" on the astral plane & such. She said her tales were adaptations from her own life, and those of her colleagues. They involved secret groupings of men & women around the world performing secret rituals together. Often the practices were invisible to those around them. Members spent lots of time at home lying down! But most importantly, the stories always include aspects of loving submission to a higher, benevolent master. It was a hallmark of Fortune's writing. Anything more we might learn about the spiritual ideas of these people might help us understand this character they created.

Ron Rege, Jr.: Do you have any hopes that revealing the backgrounds of the people who created Wonder Woman, and their direct ties to the birth control movement, might effect how the character is portrayed in the future, or add to discussions of feminism in popular culture?

Jill Lepore: Oh, I don’t think historians very often have objectives of that sort in mind when they undertake archival research. Mainly, I wanted to answer a series of questions, and the answers I found led me to write the book I wrote, which attempts to restore Wonder Woman to the history of politics, where she belongs. She has a place in the history of comics, too, of course, but her origins are political, and, so, finally, is her legacy.

I don't know if you would know, or necessarily care about this - but have you heard about changes in current DC comics regarding the Wonder Woman origin story? They have made her the daughter of Zeus and done away with the "clay birth," as they call it. I think they will be using this new origin for the upcoming film as well. You've mentioned that Amazon parthenogenesis was an important inspiration in early feminist literature, symbolizing a woman's ability to choose when to give birth. This idea of the Amazons went back further in myth, correct? I think the guys who are writing this actually hope to do right by Marston. What do you think Marston and his women would have thought of this important change to the story?

Yes, I did know about that change to the comics. On the one hand: these characters aren’t sacrosanct; they get changed and updated all the time. On the other hand: to turn Wonder Woman into the daughter of Zeus is to take a massively influential female hero and icon whose unique origins lie in the suffrage and birth control movements, and whose origin story is taken directly from Progressive era feminist utopian fiction, and turn her into a stock element in a Percy Jackson knockoff. You could take away Krypton from Superman, too, and decide, say, that Superman is the son of Odin, or that he’s George Washington brought back from the dead, or that he has a sidekick named Watson, or two heads. But then, of course, he wouldn’t be Superman.

Can you tell us anything about Marjorie Wilkes Huntley that might not have made it into your book? Her presence in this story is a bit mysterious, and seems almost secretly pivotal. She enters Marston's life at such an early stage, and remains involved with the family until the very end. She was an early suffragist, and visited Ethyl Byrne. Did she first introduce this idea of plural relationships? I was halfway through preparing this interview when I noticed your footnote that explained that Elizabeth Marston told her children that "everything was explained in a box of documents that were in a closet in Huntley's home" and that Huntley had later burned the box saying that "the world isn't ready for this, I have to destroy it." For all the "incense burning" feminist fans of Wonder Woman, what more can you tell us about her? I'd like to note that as a cartoonist, as well as a magical thinker, the fact that Huntley actually helped ink and letter the comics is pretty significant!

I am frustrated that I was able to discover so little about Huntley. She died alone, in a nursing home, and she had no children. So far as I can tell, she left no papers, and, as you point out, I did come across evidence that she may have destroyed them. I was thrilled to find some correspondence from her in Gloria Steinem’s papers at Smith. And there were other treasures, here and there. I was especially intrigued by a photograph that I found—it’s reproduced in the book--of all three women, sitting on a garden bench: Olive Byrne and Elizabeth Holloway Marston each hold an infant; Huntley holds a baby doll. For the record, I am unconvinced that Huntley actually burned her papers, and I would not be at all surprised if, one day, they turned up.

I'd like to ask the same about Marston's aunt Carolyn Keatley. You say that she was interested in other things besides The Aquarian Gospel. What were they? That book doesn't seem to necessarily explain this "love binding" business. Googling the term doesn't come up with anything about bondage, but has plenty of hits for witchy spells.

Oh no, The Aquarian Gospel has nothing to do with love binding. I know Keatley was a follower because I found her copy of the book. Don’t Google the book: read it! It seems to me that Keatley shared with Huntley a fascination with the spiritual world, which was quite a mainstream fascination at the time. Remember, for instance, that William James pursued psychical research: he suspected that the dead could communicate with the living. But as for Keatley, lots of people have kooky aunts. That said, the meetings Keatley held in her apartment in Boston in 1925 and 1926—which are described in a set of meeting minutes that I found--were something I had really never seen before. Holloway was very much drawn into that world (she was also later a follower of I AM, by the way). My sense was that Marston had more of an intellectual curiosity in it. But that’s among the many things that I simply don’t know. Since the publication of Les Daniels’s Wonder Woman: The Complete History (in 1999, I think?), which offered some bare outlines of the family arrangement, Wonder Woman fans have made a lot of guesses about what Marston and other members of his family believed, and did. I totally understand that. But historians don’t guess or, at least, we try hard not to; we gather evidence. I loved, about working on this book, finding so much material that no one had ever seen before. Even Marston’s undergraduate records at Harvard are gripping; I got completely carried away researching in the lives and work of every professor he studied with. But then, I am pretty easily fascinated.

Oh, I was talking about googling "love binding" spells. I'm quite familiar with The Aquarian Gospel. Although it's main premise is flawed, it contains plenty of esoteric insight. It influenced many people in the 1920's as well as the 1960's. Thanks again Jill! I hope you really do get asked to act as "consulting historian" on the new Wonder Woman film! It's amazing to know that Wonder Woman was created by people who were "opposed to prejudice against non-conformists." I'll get to work seeing if we can find Huntley on the astral plane, and if she wants to tell us where that box might be! I grew up in Plymouth, MA and have also lived in coastal Rhode Island, the region where she spent the end of her life? I don't know if the world is ready yet, but we're definitely curious!

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3 Responses to Wonder Woman and the Unknown: An Interview with Jill Lepore

  1. Ken Parille says:

    Ron,

    I really enjoyed this interview and wished it were longer!

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