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Historian On Wonder Woman's Origin Story And Ties To Feminism

The film “Wonder Woman” took in over $100 million at the box office in its first weekend, the biggest opening ever for a female director.

Here & Now‘s Robin Young talks with historian  Jill Lepore, author of “ The Secret History of Wonder Woman,” about the evolution of the comic book character and Wonder Woman’s connection to feminism.

Uncovering The Origins Of Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman was the creation of psychologist William Moulton Marston …

“Who said that he created her as psychological propaganda ‘for the new type of woman I believe should rule the world,'” Lepore says.

Marston was married, but he also had a mistress, Olive Byrne, who was also the niece of Margaret Sanger, revered feminist and birth control pioneer.

“Wonder Woman is Margaret Sanger,” Lepore explains. “This just was a family secret that was greatly hidden.

“So, it was a few years back, I completely fell into the story, and I just could not claw my way out. It’s like being at the bottom of a well. I had an assignment from the New Yorker — this was in 2011 during the Republican primary season, where all the GOP candidates were asked to sign a pro-life pledge, that if they were elected they would defund Planned Parenthood. And I was asked to write a piece about the history of Planned Parenthood, and I did the reporting things that you would do — I went to the birth control clinic in Brooklyn, which is the site of the first birth control clinic in the United States. I went to some rallies, and, you know, I did just, kind of beat reporting things.

“What I bring to the New Yorker is that I’m a historian, and I am just what historians call an ‘archive rat.’ Like I just love being in an archive. So, I went to Smith [College], which has Margaret Sanger’s papers — Margaret Sanger was the founder of Planned Parenthood, she founded it in 1916.

“When I was at Smith, in the Planned Parenthood papers, I kept finding letters from people in Marston’s family to Margaret Sanger and about Planned Parenthood, because when Margaret Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in New York, in 1916, she did so with her sister, who was also a nurse, who was Ethel Byrne, who was Olive Byrne’s mother.

“So I got completely obsessed with this weird coincidence of families, and I went in to the curator at the archives, and I was trying to be sneaky, because I had found something out really great, but I didn’t really want her to know … I had a little piece of paper, and I said, ‘As you know I’m here writing a piece on Planned Parenthood, yes, yes, yes. But I thought I’d look at the Steinem and Ms. Magazine papers, but I’m looking only for correspondence with particular individuals. So if I give you the names of the people, can you just tell me what boxes to look in? ‘Cause there’s no finding guide.’

“And I said, ‘Well, Elizabeth Holloway Marston.’ She’s box 42, folder 7. ‘OK, Olive Byrne.’ Box 205, folder 1. ‘Um, Wonder Woman.’ And she looks at me, and she … she looks at her notes and mine, she looks at my piece of paper, and she leaps out of her chair and she well nigh screams, ‘Oh my god! Wonder Woman is Margaret Sanger.’ Whereupon, I leap out of my chair and say, ‘Shhhh!'”

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