Jill Lepore’s University Lecture follows Wonder Woman’s feminist history

Jill Lepore lectures on Wonder Woman's history

Published: November 9, 2017

The latest installment of Syracuse’s University Lectures brought Jill Lepore, an American historian, David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard University, and staff writer at The New Yorker to Hendricks Chapel on Thursday night. Lepore’s lecture focused on the history of Wonder Woman, the topic of her American History Book Prize-winning book, The Secret History of Wonder Woman.

Maxwell School associate dean Carol Faulkner introduced Lepore and detailed a few highlights from her impressive career covering a variety of social and political topics as a historian and writer.

“She is a bit of a Wonder Woman herself,” Faulkner said.

Lepore has written about everything from Noah Webster to slave rebellions to Jane Franklin, who was “as smart and as witty” as her brother, Benjamin. Without Lepore, Jane’s narrative might have been lost.

Lepore began her lecture at Wonder Woman’s roots: a 1941 publicity stunt. At the time Wonder Woman was created, the publishers who would eventually be known as DC Comics, were facing backlash from parents who found their comics too violent. Their response was to create the American icon known as Wonder Woman today.


Portrait of Jill Lepore
Author Jill Lepore during her visit Thursday to Syracuse University.

The lecture followed the creation of Wonder Woman by William Moulton Marston, who took inspiration by early 1900s activist like Emmeline Pankhurst, a British suffragette, and Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood. Amidst a colorful slideshow and dry quips from Lepore, the audience remained active throughout the lecture, laughing and clapping as Lepore cracked jokes.

“If you read the founding documents of Wonder Woman, really, it’s quite aggressively feminist,” said Lepore.

From her suffragette beginnings, Lepore detailed how Marston’s original character evolved into a feminist icon in later years. She pulled up a picture of the inaugural cover of activist Gloria Steinem’s Ms. Magazine next to a comic from the same time period that depicted Wonder Woman having broken into President Richard Nixon’s cabinet that elicited laughter and applause from the audience.

“I’m surprised that [Wonder Woman] was made by a man yet was so based off suffragettes and feminist activists. I didn’t expect her origins to be so rooted in that movement,” said senior magazine journalism major Kirsty Fraser, who attended the lecture on Thursday.

Lepore brought her presentation to present-day where she talked about Patty Jenkins’s 2017 film, Wonder Womanwhich starred Gal Gadot. When asked of her impression of the film during the brief question and answer section, Lepore chuckled and said, “She does a lot of kicking.”

She said her main issue with the movie was the plot move from World War II to World War I. Lepore said this move stripped Wonder Woman from her 1940s feminist origins.

The questions that followed addressed the large amount of criticism Wonder Woman gets for not being an inclusive character. Critics say that the white, traditionally attractive and able-bodied character represents a small margin of women. Lepore did not disagree but maintained that the character has a complex history and represents different things to different women.

“It’s hard to think about the many ways this character disappoints, but we can’t say she doesn’t represent power to little girls,” she said.