A new film version of the comic book Wonder Woman, starring Gal Gadot, won’t hit theaters until 2017, which leaves a little time to read up on the man who created the character more than 70 years ago. William Moulton Marston, who originated the most popular female comic character of all time, was something of a character in his own right—and his reasons for creating arguably the first feminist comic book were as complicated as he was.
Born in 1893 in Saugus, Massachusetts, Marston attended Harvard University, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1915 and a PhD in psychology in 1921. He taught at the American University in Washington, D.C. and at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. Throughout his life, he wrote journal papers and articles on psychology, but he first gained national attention because of an invention. Marston, who had a lifelong fascination with the secrets people keep, is credited with inventing a precursor to the modern lie detector test.
As a graduate student at Harvard, Marston had introduced the idea of measuring systolic blood pressure to gauge whether a person was lying. The systolic blood pressure test was suggested by Marston’s wife, a law student named Elizabeth Holloway, who noticed that her blood pressure rose when she was upset. Marston worked hard to convince the public of the lie detector’s infallibility, but wasn’t successful; when he attempted to introduce the lie detector into court cases in 1922, the court (Frye v. United States) decided there was just too much opportunity for error. Marston also tried to convince the Committee on Psychology at the National Research Council to use his lie detector to ferret out spies, but they refused to endorse the idea, citing skepticism about its consistency and reliability. Even today, the American Psychological Association says that lie detectors are not reliable, because there is no verifiable bodily reaction that proves deception.
Marston testing his lie detector in 1922. Image credit: Wikimedia // Public Domain
Marston, however, was convinced that his invention was a game changer. He contributed articles about the machine’s veracity and usefulness to a popular women’s magazine and various medical journals—and he would eventually use a comic to indirectly popularize the idea.
Besides being an inventor and a psychologist, Marston was also a writer. He won a nationwide contest for “best moving picture scenario” while at Harvard, which became the film Jack Kennard, Coward. In 1928, he was hired as director of the Public Service Bureau at Universal Studios, charged with “[applying] psychology wherever psychology is needed.” The employment advertisement he answered requested a psychologist who would help analyze plot situations and forecast “how the public might react to them.” Marston also co-founded a film company, Equitable Pictures, with the hope of making films about women who were economically and sexually independent. But the film company was incorporated only days before the stock market crashed in 1929. Neither it nor Marston’s job with Universal survived the onset of the Great Depression.
Comics were popular escapist fiction during the difficult years of the Depression, and with the advent of superheroes who could solve insurmountable problems, the industry exploded. Superman debuted in 1938, and Batman first appeared in Detective Comics in 1939. Yet, despite their growing popularity, comics drew criticism; some criticized them for being too violent and racy. Newspaper editorials called them “a national disgrace” and nicknamed them “sex-horror serials.”
In 1940, former elementary school principal and comic book publisher Maxwell Charles Gaines hired Marston, who had spent most of the Depression unemployed, as an educational consultant for Detective Comics (now known as DC Comics). Marston agreed that existing comics tended to be violent and wondered why there was not a female hero, one who could find peaceful solutions to conflict. At the same time, he reasoned, that comic book heroine could serve as a role model for young women and inspire them to achieve.
Marston explored the subject of a female comic book hero in a 1943 essay titled “Why 100,000,000 Americans Read Comics,” published in the The American Scholar. While his words don’t sound particularly feminist today, Marston thought of himself that way, and worked to promote the idea that women should be strong and powerful.
“Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, power,” he wrote. “Not wanting to be girls they don’t want to be tender, submissive, peaceloving as good women are. Women’s strong qualities have become despised because of their weak ones. The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of a Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.”
Marston said he wanted to inspire girl comic book readers, and to introduce boys to what he saw as a feminist icon. A press release at the time explained, “‘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.”
Gaines told Marston if he wanted to see that comic book become a reality, he would have to write it himself. So, he did—and thus Wonder Woman was born. The character debuted in All-Star Comics in late 1941, and was featured in Sensation Comics in 1942. Six months after that, the very first issue of Wonder Woman was released.
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Wonder Woman’s story was based on the Greek myths of women warriors. She was an Amazon princess named Diana who had lived in an all-female society on a hidden island. Fearless and skilled, she was the best warrior around. When Steve Trevor, a U.S. intelligence officer, crashed his plane on the island, Diana won a contest to take him home, since no man could remain on the island. At the same time, she was also charged with returning to the world of men so she could fight the Axis powers.
After taking Trevor home, Wonder Woman decided to stay near him, where she could protect him. She continued to rescue him but was reluctant to declare her feelings for him. In between battling super villains, who were often narrow-minded misogynists, she shadowed Trevor disguised as Plain-Jane assistant Diana Prince. He never suspected she was Wonder Woman, whom he also secretly loved.
Though young readers seemed to respond positively to Wonder Woman, the heroine still had plenty of critics. Most of the criticism centered on her sexy outfit, featuring a red and yellow bustier and form-fitting blue shorts, which caused the Catholic Bishops’ National Organization for Decent Literature to put the comic book on its banned list.
"There are a lot of people who get very upset at what Marston was doing,” Jill Lepore, Harvard professor and author of The Secret History of Wonder Woman, explained in a 2015 interview with NPR. “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?”
Critics also took exception to the suggestion of bondage, which some felt was implied by Wonder Woman’s frequent depiction in chains. The chains were a key part of Wonder Woman’s story: Just as Superman was vulnerable to Kryptonite, Wonder Woman was vulnerable to a man chaining her up, which caused all her strength to sap away.
Marston shrugged off criticism that focused on the frequency of Wonder Woman’s bondage, telling one critic that he’d spent his life studying psychology and was convinced that bondage could be a healthy means of sexual expression. And according to Lepore, the imagery of chains also evoked other influences in Marston’s life.
“Almost every story Marston writes in the '40s, she’s tied up or chained up or gagged,” Lepore said in an interview with The Telegraph. “He says that 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.”
The imagery of a woman enchained by oppression had been a popular cultural motif during Marston’s early life. As a young man, Marston had greatly admired the suffragettes, and during his college days he had witnessed suffragettes chaining themselves to fences as an act of protest. Marston was also a vocal advocate of Margaret Sanger, the birth control advocate who founded what would become Planned Parenthood. She published a collection of letters from women titled “Motherhood in Bondage,” which described the lack of birth control as enslavement. A 1923 magazine illustration for Sanger’s Birth Control Review pictured a woman chained to a ball that read “Unwanted Babies.” The popular motif implied that women would never truly be free until they could control the size of their families.
When Sanger was charged with obscenity for promoting birth control in her magazine Woman Rebel, her supporters sent a petition to President Woodrow Wilson. It read in part:
“While men stand proudly and face the sun, boasting that they have quenched the wickedness of slavery, what chains of slavery are, have been or ever could be so intimate a horror as the shackles on every limb—on every thought—on the very soul of an unwilling pregnant woman?”
Other details of Wonder Woman’s wardrobe and accoutrements were also significant. That includes the magical lasso she carried that forced her captives to tell the truth—likely a reference to Marston’s invention, the lie detector test.
“Anyone caught in the lasso found it impossible to lie,” said Geoffrey Bunn, author of “The Lie Detector, Wonder Woman and Liberty” [PDF]. “And because Wonder Woman used it to extract confessions and compel obedience, the golden lasso was of course nothing less than a lie detector.”
Wonder Woman also wore two thick bullet-deflecting bracelets, which may have been a reference to Marston’s unconventional romantic life. The jewelry was similar to the thick bracelets worn by Olive Byrne, Marston’s lover and Margaret Sanger’s niece. Though Marston had married Elizabeth Holloway in 1915, by 1925 he was also romantically involved with Byrne. She moved into their home a few years later, and together the three adults raised four children. Byrne kept their secret by pretending to be a widow, claiming that her children with Marston were from a previous marriage. It has been suggested that she wore the bracelets in lieu of a wedding band.
Marston died of skin cancer in 1947, at age 53. Following his death, his wife and Byrne continued to live together until Byrne died in the 1980s—which has led some to speculate that this unconventional relationship was Holloway’s doing as much as, or perhaps more than, Marston’s.
Marston’s personal life may have been unusual, and some of his ideas radical for his time, but the author and inventor managed to create the most popular female comic book superhero of all time, a woman whose strength resonated with both male and female readers. It’s no wonder she adorned the cover of the first issue of Ms. magazine as a symbol of feminism; she inspired a generation of women with her strength and resolve.