Booked #2: Wonder Woman and the History of Feminism

Booked #2: Wonder Woman and the History of Feminism

Tim Shenk talks with historian and New Yorker writer Jill Lepore about Wonder Woman and the lost history of feminism.

Wonder Woman is “the missing link in the history of the fight for women’s rights,” says Jill Lepore.

This is the second installment of Booked, a new series of Q&As with authors by Dissent contributor Timothy Shenk. For this interview, he spoke with Jill Lepore about her new book The Secret History of Wonder Woman (Knopf, 2014).

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.

Shenk: Emily Davidson, the suffragette, throwing herself under King George’s horse in the UK, which you can see video of online . . .

Lepore: Yes, and you can see it online, but do you have it in your head? I don’t think so. Maybe you can picture one or two photographs—Gloria Steinem with her glasses, or the freedom trash cans at the Miss America Pageant—that date from the 1960s and 1970s.

Shenk: But even though feminism was flourishing in the 1910s and ’20s, it was a very particular kind of flourishing. You write that “much of early feminism was a fantasy of the wealthy,” and there are some amazing statistics to back you up: 40 percent of college students in 1920 were women, for instance, but that’s because a university education was even more of an elite privilege at the time than it is today. What were the class politics of a movement that was such a product of the elite?

Lepore: In the nineteenth century, the women’s rights movement was closely aligned with many other forms of social reform, with the peace movement and the abolitionist movement in particular and temperance especially: middle-class reforms. Women engaged in social activism and social reform by insisting on their moral superiority as a sex. By the early twentieth century, a lot of women who are involved in the suffrage movement and early feminism are college students, or young college-educated women. That’s new. And the college-educated population is a very small slice of the American population, for men, too. Nevertheless there are also people like Margaret Sanger and Emma Goldman, Greenwich Village radicals and socialists. So it’s hard to generalize. The very early days of the women’s rights movement was made up of a women with a lot of different kinds of political commitments. That’s still true.

Shenk: And there’s great material in the book on radicalism and early feminism, too. John Reed and Max Eastman both make cameos early on as Harvard undergrads promoting suffrage in the 1910s, then a little later they’re bouncing around Greenwich Village. But as feminism became more mainstream, some of its leaders distanced themselves from their radical affiliations. You have a great quote on this from Olive Byrne, who, in addition to being one of the inspirations for Wonder Woman, was also Margaret Sanger’s niece. This is Byrne talking about Sanger: “I think what Margaret was doing was . . . getting the movement away from the fringes of socialism out of Greenwich Village and into uptown New York because the money for anything is where the people are who have money and not the ragtag, bobtail people.” Then she caps it with this line: “You have to comply a little bit, you know, to get anywhere.”

Lepore: Yeah, I love that part. Olive Byrne completely fascinates me and if there had been a way to write the book with her as the main character, I’d have done it. But what I hope the book delivers, in a guise of the account of the origins of this iconic female superhero, is a history of the long struggle for equality for women. Along the way you meet a lot people. All kinds of people are attached to that movement or have something to say to it or are turned in a different direction by it. John Reed pops up again and again and again. Sanger goes off and sleeps with H. G. Wells. I could have spent forever with H. G. Wells. But what has to be the center of gravity for the story telling is: how are we getting towards Wonder Woman?

Shenk: Shifting to that story, even though this is a history of feminism, a lot of the narrative centers on a man. William Marston created Wonder Woman, but he did much more than that. Who was Marston, and how does he fit into the history of feminism?

Lepore: He is a refraction of the history of feminism, and a lot else, besides. Follow in his footsteps and you’ll eventually get everywhere in American popular culture in the first half of the twentieth century. He starts out interested in the law and then he’s interested in philosophy, then psychology, and then he becomes obsessed with film. He’s bound up in feminist and suffrage causes as a very young man mainly because he was at Harvard when Emmeline Pankhurst comes to speak but also because he’s in love with a woman, Elizabeth Holloway, at Mount Holyoke, a hot bed of suffragism. He’s willing to experiment with any serious idea that comes along his way. He’s fascinated by feminism and he’s titillated by it, and there’s a weird voyeurism, I think, in his relationship to it. And then there is this kind of appropriation of it. He moves through life switching professions, and then he finds his way to comic books, and he writes Wonder Woman.

What I aimed to do in the book was to reveal the surprises of that life and the surprising origins of this iconic character, but, meanwhile, to deliver a whole lot of lessons about women’s history, and a new interpretation of it, too. Within the academy, women’s history and gender history and history of sexuality have had an incredible vitality and generativity. The challenges those fields have offered to the writing of history and the way historians think and do their work is extraordinary. But you go into a bookstore, outside a college town, and, at least on the history shelf, you are going to be hard pressed to see what those fields have left behind.

Shenk: You write that one tragedy of feminism in the twentieth century was the way its history seemed to be forever disappearing.

Lepore: Yeah, in spite of the fact that historians are forever chronicling it. My hope in taking on this project was to bring to readers who might have not encountered it before the incredible history of women produced by generations of scholars.

Shenk: But the rise of women’s history has coincided with major reversals for the women’s movement, and you end the book with a grim assessment of feminism today. Discussing this subject in the New Yorker recently, you wrote “Breast pumps and fetal rights instead of paid maternity leave and equal rights? Longer hours instead of equal pay? . . . Lean in? Are you kidding?”

Lepore: That was an understated version of my sense of where things stand. We’re moving backwards at a pretty fast pace, I’d say.

Shenk: Do you have a causal story for how we got from feminists in the 1920s saying that “equality is right around the corner” to where we are today?

Lepore: One reader wrote to me, “In your epilogue, you’re so down on where feminism is today but you don’t blame the new right enough. What about Phyllis Schlafly? Why don’t you lay this on her door? You seem to imply that women involved in the women’s rights struggle have failed. Why not blame Schlafly?” Everyone has a view about this. I certainly have my own. But most of all, I guess, I’m tired of the nonsense that passes for “gains for women.” I once wrote an article for the New Yorker called “Baby Food” about how breast pumps became the American substitute for maternity leave. There’s a line in there where I quote the head of NOW urging more corporations to provide rooms where their female employees can pump their milk. And so, in the piece I ask, whatever happened to asking for more than a closet?

Shenk: Looking over your other work, I noticed—and it should have been obvious to me before, but it jumped out at me this time—that politics is everywhere in your writing. Your first piece for the New Yorker was a review of Sean Wilentz’s The Rise of American Democracy. It’s a great review, and one reason is that you take this quintessential “big” subject, American democracy, and you approach it at a slant. Do you think of yourself as a political historian?

Lepore: Yes, I do think of myself as a political historian. Most questions to me have political answers. I’m fascinated by characters and by stories of lives but I’m not fundamentally a biographer. I tend to be much more persuaded by structural explanations, especially political explanations.

Shenk: Thinking about your own training—you were a Yale American Studies PhD in the early ’90s—you mentioned in another interview that, in keeping with the times, you spent a lot of hours on Foucault and Derrida, but even then felt there was a gap between what was intellectually fashionable and the type of work that you wanted to be doing. Yet it also seems like that cultural studies moment opened up a space for your own career as a historian willing to test the boundary between history and literature. But the 1990s are in the rearview mirror now, and a different set of concerns have come into the foreground. What have the consequences been for the type of narrative history you practice?

Lepore: It was a weird moment, that ’90s moment, and Yale was its ground zero.

Shenk: The ghost of Paul de Man stalking the halls…

Lepore: That’s right! But it was a great gift to me because wherever I am I like to feel like I don’t belong. If Yale had been the place where what was going on was what I actually was really interested in doing, I would have had to leave. I’m very uncomfortable belonging. I’m much more comfortable not belonging. I loved soaking all that stuff up, I learned so much from it, and I had such smart and generous teachers. “I’m wasting my youth reading Gramsci!” I’d think, but I loved trying to understand the multiple disciplines that American Studies asked me to try to understand.

But, as for practicing narrative history, I don’t think of myself as essentially or certainly not exclusively a narrative historian. I’m equally happy writing in a rigorously analytical way. I love a very spirited, carefully made argument. But I have been writing for the New Yorker for ten years now, and what I do in those essays is try to deliver an argument in the form of a story. That follows from the conventions of journalism and of narrative non-fiction but also from a body of work I found incredibly inspiring when I was at Yale—this incredible blossoming of work on early modern Europe. The storytelling of Natalie Zemon Davis, and Carlo Ginzburg, really influenced me, or Jonathan Spence, not an early modern Europeanist but someone whose work I was completely obsessed with in graduate school. With the notable exceptions of people like John Demos and Laurel Ulrich, that kind of storytelling wasn’t going on in early American history. But early modern Europe was on fire.

Shenk: One response to recent intellectual changes, at least among historians, has been an embrace of the macro, arguably at the cost of the more focused inquiries you wrote about in your well-known article on microhistory for the Journal of American History. Not too long ago, a book like The Rise of American Democracy would have seemed like too much for a historian, but now lots of historians would say that it’s not ambitious enough: “Only America? No it must be global.” And “only 200 years? No it must be 500, at least.” Do you share that sense of the field?

Lepore: I like to work intimately with my subjects, with moments and people and objects, especially in archives. But calling doing that “microhistory” seems to me to have become a backhanded way of saying that writing about women and families is small-minded and narrow: tiny and cute. Nothing could be further from the truth. Probably the greatest intellectual yield of the last several decades of historical writing has been thinking about the social and about the familial and about the everyday and the humble and the lives of ordinary people in a kind of Virginia Woolf “Lives of the Obscure” way. It’s gigantic. To call it “microhistory” is ridiculous. I think the label is kind of goofy to begin with but not half as goofy as “big history.” Seriously? Is it 1848 again?

Yes we do, we absolutely do need grand narratives and there should be sweeping interpretations and no one can deny that: historians have an obligation to make sense of the world in a less fragmentary way and with a greater and deeper sense of context and change over time. So, sure, by all means, think big. All these calls are full of merit, and they’re thrilling and important. The part I’m quibbling with is that it often appears to seem necessary, to people offering up those calls to arms, to diminish whole realms of research and writing and ways of knowing that draw on literary arts, that demand and display the authority of intimacy. You don’t need to say portraiture is child’s play, or the painter’s equivalent of chick lit, just because you like landscapes. I love landscapes, too. That doesn’t mean I don’t also stand in awe at the power of a portrait.