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 backup 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.

Wonder Woman Was a New Wartime Female Archetype: Strong, Courageous—and Alluring

William Moulton Marston
DC Comics
William Moulton Marston saw the need for a powerful female superhero, writing, 'Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, power,'

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 the 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.

The Superhero's Character May Have Been Inspired by Its Creator's Wife—and Live-In Mistress

DC Comics
Wonder Woman, volume 1

“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.

It's speculated that Wonder Woman may have been inspired, in part, by the two women in Marston’s unique domestic situation. In 1915, Marston married his childhood sweetheart, Elizabeth Holloway, a strong, liberated modern woman with three academic degrees—including a law degree and a master's in psychology—and a multi-faceted career. A decade later, the psychology professor fell in love with one of his students, Olive Byrne (Sanger’s niece), who is said to have been more of a physical model for the superhero character; dark-haired and blue-eyed, she was known to wear heavy silver bracelets not unlike Wonder Woman's bullet-deflecting wrist cuffs. Marston, Holloway and Byrne all lived together under the same roof in a polyamorous relationship. Each woman bore him two children, and they lived together as family, even after his 1947 death.

Between WWII and the Birth of the Women's Movement, Wonder Woman Regressed

Actress Lynda Carter portrayed Wonder Woman in the TV show that ran from 1975-79.
ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images
Actress Lynda Carter portrayed Wonder Woman in the TV show that ran from 1975-79.

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 roles have changed a great deal since Wonder Woman’s debut, the controversy surrounding the use of a scantily clad female as a role model endured. On October 21, 2016, 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 with 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.”