For many, the first introduction to Wonder Woman’s in-universe backstory will come on June 2, 2017, in the form of director Patty Jenkins’ DC Extended Universe movie. Comic book readers, though, will probably already be familiar with the fictional origins of a character that’s more than 70 years old. But even die-hard comic fans might not know the real truth behind Wonder Woman’s inception, or the unbelievable life of her creator, Dr. William Moulton Marston. Still, Marston’s unconventional beliefs and interests formed the foundation of the character’s personality and history.
Born in Massachusetts on May 9, 1893, Marston earned a B.A. from Harvard University in 1915, and this period was pivotal in forming the basis of Marston’s feminist beliefs. For example, in 1911 Emmeline Pankhurst – the leader of the British suffragette movement – gave a talk at Harvard, inspiring its women to imitate her defiant act of chaining herself to the gates outside the official residence of the British Prime Minister.
Marston came into the world of comic books in 1940. In fact, Marston was hired by Maxwell Charles Gaines, the man who had arguably founded the modern comic book seven years before. At the time, however, Gaines desperately needed someone to help him defend the medium. That’s because, in the midst of a world war, newspapers such as the Chicago Daily News were branding comics as a “national disgrace.”
The Chicago Daily News’ literary editor even launched a full-on tirade at the comic industry. In fact, he suggested that the violent and racy graphic novels should be banned by teachers and parents. The alternative, he warned, was “a coming generation even more ferocious than the present one.”
By the time Gaines hired Marston, though, Marston had already led something of an extraordinary – or “experimental,” as he called it – life. Beyond his initial degree, for instance, he’d since gained an LL.B. and a Ph.D. from Harvard, and he’d worked as a scientist, lawyer, professor and psychologist.
Famously, Marston had, inspired by his wife’s suggestion, also conceived of the world’s first lie detector, which measured blood pressure to detect if a person was telling the truth. Though the machine had failed to catch on with professional bodies such as the law courts or the American Psychological Association, Marston clearly liked the idea. In fact, the lie detector can be seen as a clear precursor to Wonder Woman’s Lasso of Truth.
Interestingly, Marston was doing psychology work was for Universal Pictures, where he was brought on to analyze movie scripts and predict the public response to them. He was also a keen writer, with a body of work behind him that included multiple screenplays, magazine articles and even a novel.
Most crucial to Marston’s later success, however, was probably his staunch feminist beliefs, which remained with him from his university days and throughout adulthood. Indeed, one of his psychology professors, Hugo Münsterberg – who firmly opposed women being given the right to vote, or even an education – would later form the basis for one of Wonder Woman’s arch nemeses, Dr. Psycho.
Moreover, in 1929 Marston helped to launch Equitable Pictures, a movie company that aimed to produce films promoting the economic and sexual independence of women. The Great Depression began just days later, however, and Marston quickly found himself unemployed.
His erratic career and life experiences, however, go some way to explaining why – when Gaines hired him in 1940 – Marston’s solution to defying comics’ critics was a female superhero. So Gaines commissioned Marston to write the first strip, and the eager psychologist seized the opportunity to chronicle “a great movement now under way – the growth in the power of women.”
However, it wasn’t only Marston’s feminist beliefs that made him such an unconventional individual in the 1940s. For instance, Marston lived in a permanent ménage à trois with his wife, Elizabeth Holloway, and a former student named Olive Byrne. He got away with it by presenting Byrne in public as Marston’s widowed sister-in-law. Incidentally, Byrne’s aunt was prominent American feminist Margaret Sanger, who also had a profound impact on Marston’s views.
This unusual relationship was perhaps not Holloway’s ideal scenario, but she was almost forced to accept it after Marston threatened to leave her unless Byrne could move in. Between the two women, then, Marston fathered four children – two apiece – and they apparently lived as a happy, but pretty unusual, family unit.
Again, Marston’s own experiences formed some of the crucial elements of Wonder Woman’s character. A case in point? Wonder Woman’s thick, bulletproof bracelets may have mirrored those worn by Byrne instead of a traditional wedding ring.
Marston’s wife and lover were, however, mostly reduced to domestic roles, or those beneath their station. Yes, Byrne raised the children, while Holloway worked outside of her preferred field of law. But this was arguably more society’s doing than Marston’s. And Marston himself remained committed to his feminist ideals, even once stating, “Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who, I believe, should rule the world.”
In fact, Marston hoped that Wonder Woman would be the character to radically overhaul what it meant to be a woman. Therefore, Marston sought to imbue all the positive qualities of a woman – her beauty and goodness, for example – with the “strength of a Superman,” as he wrote in a 1943 essay.
For all Marston’s good intentions, however, Wonder Woman still faced her share of critics – perhaps understandably, given how pretty much every story involved her being tied up. And while the character’s early reputation endures even to this day, it turned out that Marston actually had a reason for constantly putting the Amazonian Warrior in chains.
After all, Marston was not only a staunch feminist, but also a lover and advocate of bondage. This was maybe unsurprising, considering his fascination with the suffragette movement both overseas and at home, and its use of shackles and chains to put forward its message.
But while Marston’s stories often featured Wonder Woman shackled by chains, Marston refuted accusations of sadism in his work. In 1943, he wrote to Gaines, “Real sadism, killing, blood-letting, torturing where the pleasure is in the victim’s actual pain, etc. Those are 100 percent bad and I won’t have any part of them.”
Indeed, the themes that ran through Marston’s comics were mainly of rehabilitation, not retribution, and her chains were purely metaphorical. In an interview with The Telegraph, Harvard professor – and author of The Secret History of Wonder Woman – Jill Lepore said, “It’s totally necessary because she’s an allegory of the emancipation of women. If we want to show the emancipation of women she has to break her chains.”
Sadly, Marston died of skin cancer in 1947. He didn’t get to see, therefore, that by 1972 Wonder Woman was a feminist icon, having graced the cover of Ms. magazine under a headline calling for her presidency. Or that now, more than 70 years after her creation, Wonder Woman is getting a multi-million-dollar feature film. Marston’s legacy, just like his inimitable character, is mightily enduring.