More than 75 years after Wonder Woman’s debut, learn more about the connection between the female comic book superhero and the women’s rights movement as well as her unconventional creator—an inventor of the lie detector who lived a secret double life of his own in a polyamorous relationship.
Clad in a golden tiara, red bustier, knee-high boots and a star-spangled skirt, Wonder Woman first bounded onto the comic book pages in the fall of 1941 in a back-up story for “All Star Comics #8.” From the comic’s very first words, it was clear that this new superhero would be asked to represent her gender in a way that didn’t apply to male counterparts such as Superman and Batman. “At last, in a world torn by the hatreds and wars of men, appears a woman to whom the problems and feats of men are mere child’s play,” trumpeted the comic’s introduction.
Wonder Woman wasn’t the first female comic book hero, but she quickly proved to be the most popular after appearing on the cover of the debut issue of “Sensation Comics” in January 1942. That summer it was revealed that Wonder Woman’s creator was a most unlikely figure—Harvard-educated psychologist William Moulton Marston, who is often credited as the inventor of the lie-detector test.
Marston believed women were mentally stronger than men and would come to rule the United States—albeit on a lengthy timeline. “The next 100 years will see the beginning of an American matriarchy—a nation of Amazons in the psychological rather than physical sense,” Marston told the Harvard Club of New York in 1937, according to an Associated Press report. “In 500 years, there will be a serious sex battle. And in 1,000 years, women definitely will rule this country.” The New York Times reflected the gender roles of the time by printing in a sub-headline that Marston thought “bored wives will start within next 100 years to take over nation.”
Marston saw the need for a strong female superhero. “Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, power,” he wrote. “The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.” Marston thought Wonder Woman needed to be not just entertaining, but a role model as well. “‘Wonder Woman’ was conceived by Dr. Marston to set up a standard among children and young people of strong, free, courageous womanhood; to combat the idea that women are inferior to men, and to inspire girls to self-confidence and achievement in athletics, occupations and professions monopolized by men,” read the 1942 press release announcing Marston as the comic’s creator.
With an origin story drawn from Marston’s knowledge of feminist utopian fiction, Wonder Woman was a trained Amazon warrior sculpted out of clay by her mother who lived free from men on the all-female Paradise Island until an American pilot, Steve Trevor, washed ashore after a plane crash. Reflecting Marston’s role in developing the lie detector, Wonder Woman wielded a “Lasso of Truth” that compelled veracity along with a pair of bullet-repelling bracelets. Her introduction coincided with the entry of the United States into World War II, and her pin-up girl looks and Rosie the Riveter spirit captured the mood of the country as she led Marines into battle against the Japanese and sat astride a white horse at the head of a cavalry charge against Nazi machine gunners.
“Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world,” Marston wrote. Indeed, a 1943 issue had Wonder Woman winning a presidential election over the Man’s World Party—albeit 1,000 years in the future as Marston had predicted.
Controversy grew around Wonder Woman due to her skimpy outfits and her particular proclivity for being tied or chained up in nearly every story. As Harvard historian Jill Lepore writes in her book “The Secret History of Wonder Woman,” this was no accident. From his days as a Harvard undergraduate before women had the right to vote, Marston had sympathized with suffragists and birth-control advocates such as Margaret Sanger who had symbolically used chains to represent American patriarchy. Marston thought so highly of Sanger that in 1937 he placed her ahead of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and behind only Henry Ford in their contributions to humanity. Lepore suggests the chains could have also been tied to Marston’s bondage fantasies. “The secret of woman’s allure,” Marston said in response to one objection of Wonder Woman’s constant binding, is that “women enjoy submission—being bound.”
Marston’s response may have been rooted in his liberal sexual views for the inventor of the lie-detector test lived quite a big lie of his own. Marston had married his childhood sweetheart, Elizabeth Holloway, in 1915, and a decade later the psychology professor fell in love with one of his students, Olive Byrne, who was also Sanger’s niece. Byrne’s mother, Ethel, had opened the first birth-control clinic in the United States with Sanger, and she nearly died in prison from a hunger strike after her 1917 arrest for illegal distribution of contraception. Marston, Holloway and Olive Byrne all lived together under the same roof in a polyamorous relationship with the cover story that Byrne, who penned an advice column for housewives in the Family Circle magazine in spite of her unconventional lifestyle, was a widowed sister-in-law. Marston fathered two children with both women. Byrne couldn’t wear a wedding ring, but as Lepore notes, she did wear a pair of close-fitting, wide-banded bracelets on her wrists, which inspired those worn by Wonder Woman.
When women returned to more traditional roles after the end of World War II, so did Wonder Woman, particularly after Marston’s death in 1947. The lovestruck superhero longed for marriage as she took jobs as a model and babysitter. DC Comics replaced women’s history sidebars in the comic book with wedding advice.
The growing women’s rights movement of the 1960s reinvigorated Wonder Woman as a feminist icon. She was the cover girl on the first regular issue of Ms. magazine in 1972 and became a television star with both kids and adults in the 1970s with the release of a prime-time, live-action show starring Lynda Carter and the Saturday morning “Super Friends” cartoon.
Although gender relations have changed a great deal in the 75 years since Wonder Woman’s debut, the controversy surrounding the use of a scantily clad female as a role model hasn’t. This past October, the United Nations named Wonder Woman an “honorary ambassador for the empowerment of women and girls.” The honor was short-lived, however, as the United Nations stripped her of the title less than two months later due to a public backlash. An online petition that gained 45,000 signatures objected to “using a character with an overtly sexualized image at a time when the headline news in the world is the objectification of women and girls.” Such discussion around Wonder Woman is sure to continue in 2017 when she will become the latest superhero to star in a Hollywood blockbuster.