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Jill Lepore says Wonder Woman is the missing link in the history of feminism

Historians in the News
tags: feminism, Jill Lepore, womens history, Wonder Woman



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 byDissent 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. ...

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