The Strange Story of Wonder Woman’s Creator William Moulton Marston: Polyamorous Feminist, Psychologist & Inventor of the Lie Detector

Most young male fans from my gen­er­a­tion failed to appre­ci­ate the gen­der imbal­ance in com­ic books. After all, what were the X‑Men with­out pow­er­ful X‑women Storm, Rogue, and, maybe the most pow­er­ful mutant of all, Jean Grey? Indie comics like Love and Rock­ets revolved around strong female char­ac­ters, and if the lega­cy gold­en age Mar­vel and DC titles were near­ly all about Great Men, well… just look at the time they came from. We shrugged it off, and also failed to appre­ci­ate how the hyper­sex­u­al­iza­tion of women in comics made many of the women around us uncom­fort­able and hyper­an­noyed.

Had we been curi­ous enough to look, how­ev­er, we would have found that gold­en age comics weren’t just inno­cent “prod­ucts of their time”—they reflect­ed a col­lec­tive will, just as did the comics of our time. And the char­ac­ter who first chal­lenged gold­en age atti­tudes about women—Wonder Woman, cre­at­ed in 1941—began her career as per­haps one of the kinki­est super­heroes in main­stream com­ic books. What’s more, she was cre­at­ed by a psy­chol­o­gist William Moul­ton Marston, who first pub­lished under a pseu­do­nym, due in part to his uncon­ven­tion­al per­son­al life. Marston, writes NPR, “had a wife—and a mis­tress. He fathered chil­dren with both of them, and they all secret­ly lived togeth­er in Rye, N.Y.”

The oth­er woman in Marston’s polyamorous three­some, one of his for­mer stu­dents, hap­pened to be the niece of Mar­garet Sanger, and Marston just hap­pened to be the cre­ator of the lie detec­tor. The details of his life are as odd and pruri­ent now as they were to read­ers in the 1940s—partly an index of how lit­tle some things have changed. And now that Marston’s cre­ation has final­ly received her block­buster due, his sto­ry seems ripe for the Hol­ly­wood telling. Such it has received, it appears, in Pro­fes­sor Marston & the Won­der Women, the upcom­ing biopic by Angela Robin­son. It’s unfair to judge a film by its trail­er, but in the clips above we see much more of Marston’s dual romance than we do of the inven­tion of his famous hero­ine.

Yet as polit­i­cal his­to­ri­an Jill Lep­ore tells it, the cul­tur­al his­to­ry of Won­der Woman is as fas­ci­nat­ing as her creator’s per­son­al life, though it may be impos­si­ble to ful­ly sep­a­rate the two. A press release accom­pa­ny­ing Won­der Woman’s debut explained that Marston aimed “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 in ath­let­ics, occu­pa­tions and pro­fes­sions monop­o­lized by men.” It went on to express Marston’s view that “the only hope for civ­i­liza­tion is the greater free­dom, devel­op­ment and equal­i­ty of women in all fields of human activ­i­ty.”

The lan­guage sounds like that of many a mod­ern-day NGO, not a World War II-era pop­u­lar enter­tain­ment. But Marston would go fur­ther, say­ing, “Frankly, Won­der Woman is the psy­cho­log­i­cal pro­pa­gan­da for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.” His inter­est in dom­i­neer­ing women and S&M drove the ear­ly sto­ries, which are full of bondage imagery. “There are a lot of peo­ple who get very upset at what Marston was doing…,” Lep­ore told Ter­ry Gross on Fresh Air. “’Is this a fem­i­nist project that’s sup­posed to help girls decide to go to col­lege and have careers, or is this just like soft porn?’” As Marston under­stood it, the lat­ter ques­tion could be asked of most comics.

When writer Olive Richard—pen name of Marston’s mis­tress Olive Byrne—asked him in an inter­view for Fam­i­ly Cir­cle whether some comics weren’t “full of tor­ture, kid­nap­ping, sadism, and oth­er cru­el busi­ness,” he replied, “Unfor­tu­nate­ly, that is true.” But “the reader’s wish is to save the girl, not to see her suf­fer.” Marston cre­at­ed a “girl”—or rather a super­hu­man Ama­zon­ian princess—who saved her­self and oth­ers. “One of the things that’s a defin­ing ele­ment of Won­der Woman,” says Lep­ore, “is that if a man binds her in chains, she los­es all of her Ama­zon­ian strength. So in almost every episode of the ear­ly comics, the ones that Marston wrote… she’s chained up or she’s roped up.” She has to break free, he would say, “in order to sig­ni­fy her eman­ci­pa­tion from men.” She does her share of rop­ing oth­ers up as well, with her las­so of truth and oth­er means.

The seem­ing­ly clear bondage ref­er­ences in all those ropes and chains also had clear polit­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance, Lep­ore explains. Dur­ing the fight for suf­frage, women would chain them­selves to gov­ern­ment build­ings. In parades, suf­frag­ists “would march in chains—they import­ed that iconog­ra­phy from the abo­li­tion­ist cam­paigns of the 19th cen­tu­ry that women had been involved in… Chains became a real­ly impor­tant sym­bol,” as in the 1912 draw­ing below by Lou Rogers. Won­der Woman’s mytho­log­i­cal ori­gins also had deep­er sig­ni­fi­ca­tion than the male fan­ta­sy of a pow­er­ful race of well-armed dom­i­na­tri­ces. Her sto­ry, writes Lep­ore at The New York­er, “comes straight out of fem­i­nist utopi­an fic­tion” and the fas­ci­na­tion many fem­i­nists had with anthro­pol­o­gists’ spec­u­la­tion about an Ama­zon­ian matri­archy.

The com­bi­na­tion of fem­i­nist sym­bols have made the char­ac­ter a redoubtable icon for every gen­er­a­tion of activists—as in her appear­ance on 1972 cov­er of Ms. mag­a­zine, fur­ther up, an issue head­lined by Glo­ria Steinem and Simone de Beau­voir. Marston trans­lat­ed the fem­i­nist ideas of the suf­frage move­ment, and of women like Mar­garet Sanger, Eliz­a­beth Cady Stan­ton, his wife, lawyer Eliz­a­beth Hol­loway Marston, and his mis­tress Olive Byrne, into a pow­er­ful, long-revered super­hero. He also trans­lat­ed his own ideas of what Have­lock Ellis called “the erot­ic rights of women.”

Marston’s ver­sion of Won­der Woman (he stopped writ­ing the com­ic in 1947) had as much agency—sexual and otherwise—as any male char­ac­ter of the time. (See her break­ing the bonds of “Prej­u­dice,” “Prud­ery,” and “Man’s Supe­ri­or­i­ty” in a draw­ing, below, from Marston’s 1943 arti­cle “Why 100,000 Amer­i­cans Read Comics.”) The char­ac­ter was undoubt­ed­ly kinky, a qual­i­ty that large­ly dis­ap­peared from lat­er iter­a­tions. But she was not cre­at­ed, as were so many women in comics in the fol­low­ing decades, as an object of teenage lust, but as a rad­i­cal­ly lib­er­at­ed fem­i­nist hero. Read more about Marston in Lepore’s essays at Smith­son­ian and The New York­er and in her book, The Secret His­to­ry of Won­der Woman.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Down­load Over 22,000 Gold­en & Sil­ver Age Com­ic Books from the Com­ic Book Plus Archive

Free Com­ic Books Turns Kids Onto Physics: Start With the Adven­tures of Niko­la Tes­la

Take a Free Online Course on Mak­ing Com­ic Books, Com­pli­ments of the Cal­i­for­nia Col­lege of the Arts

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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