The Genius and the Wonder Woman
Wonder Woman has been much in the news with her 2017 big screen remake, and release of a feature film inspired by her creator’s unusual life. So, how did this famous female superhero come to be?
I was excited going go see the new Wonder Woman movie when it came out in June. This movie is a big deal: it is the first time a female superhero has had her own blockbuster - and that guys and girls both flocked to the theaters to see her in action. The film shattered box office records and is the highest grossing film of the summer, an extraordinary accomplishment and a credit to female director Patty Jenkins, the first woman to direct a superhero flick. Inspiring on many levels.
Afterwards, I began to ponder the origins of this Amazonian warrior princess. Who invented the mythical Amazon whose golden bracelets can deflect bombs and bullets?
The Guy Who Lifted a Woman to Superstardom
It turns out that Wonder Woman is the invention of psychologist, early feminist and, weirdly, inventor of the lie-detector test, William Moulton Marston. Marston was born in 1893 in the town of Saugus, Massachusetts, at the Moulton Castle. You read that right, he was raised in a castle! He enrolled at Harvard in 1911, and he would go on to receive his law degree and a doctoral degree from the school.
He married Elizabeth Holloway, his childhood sweetheart, in 1915. Staying on at Harvard as a professor in the psychology department, Elizabeth came to teach at the all-women's college, Radcliffe, where almost all professors were men drawn from Harvard's faculty.
Elizabeth, too, had an outstanding academic career. She graduated from Mount Holyoke College, studied law at Boston University, and then earned a Master's degree in Psychology from Radcliffe College.
After Marston left Harvard, he went on to teach at Tufts University, where—and this turns out to be significant—he had a student with whom he would later fall in love, Olive Byrne.
The OG Lie Detector
Marston was, in his own way, a superhero. At Harvard, he helped invent the first modern polygraph machine, a.k.a., lie-detector test. This machine measured physiological signals such as heart rate, sweat, and breathing to determine whether someone was lying. Marston knew that some liars had "tells"—signs that they weren't telling the truth, like ear touching, heavy breathing, or looking away. He believed that the body could betray the mind; physiological reactions could determine whether something was telling a truth or a fiction.
Unfortunately, unlike what you see on "Law and Order," it turns out that the lie detector is actually not a reliable system. Some people are just naturally sweaty or really get nervous easily, while great liars can mask their physical reactions. After Marston's test gained popular usage in criminal investigations, his creation was revealed to be a dud. Consider one fun fact about the test: even house plants could be detected as liars. House plants!
In the end, the inventor who had argued relentlessly for its use in criminal cases lost in a court decision.
Brilliant Mind, Peculiar Family Life
While it wasn't widely known at the time, Marston had quite an unusual personal life. He lived with two women: Elizabeth Holloway, his wife, and Olive Byrne, his mistress. These three were able to work this situation to their advantage: in an age where women were expected to stay at home and raise the family, Elizabeth was a career woman with an academic path as successful as her husband's. Elizabeth agreed to this untraditional arrangement with the following condition: Olive would raise all their kids.
This seemed to suit Olive and Elizabeth both just fine. Marston and Elizabeth had two children together, and he had two children with Olive. This "family" explained to skeptical neighbors that Olive was a widowed cousin who had come to live with them. It sounded plausible, though this did not stop speculation about the family's living arrangements.
Marston the Feminist, and Margaret Sanger
Marston had always been an advocate for women's rights. At Harvard, he was a member of the Harvard Men's League for Women's Suffrage Club (whew, what a mouthful). The club invited Emmeline Pankhurst, a renowned suffragist, to speak at the school, but the administration at Harvard did not allow women to hold lectures on their campus. The invitation caused quite a stir, and eventually the club had her speak off-campus, where there were thousands in attendance.
Marston's connections to early feminism did not stop there. As it happened, Olive Byrne's mother and Margaret Sanger were sisters. Both women were founders of Planned Parenthood. Sanger invented birth control and provided access to quality healthcare that changed the lives of millions of women. Planned Parenthood today continues to be a major provider of health care to women and, almost 100 years after its founding, finds itself again, today, holding the banner for accessible and affordable women's health.
No wonder Marston regarded Sanger as a real-life superhero.
"Noted Psychologist Revealed as Author of Best-Selling ‘Wonder Woman'"
That was the headline in a 1942 press release for All-American Comics, Wonder Woman's original publisher, revealing the true creator of their series, destined to become the most popular female superhero of all time.
What led to the Marston's involvement is a story in-and-of itself. M.C. Gaines, founder of All-American Comics, hired Marston as a consultant in 1940, after getting a lot of flak for comic books that, in popular criticism, "celebrate violence."
In bringing on Marston, Gaines noted, "‘Doc' Marston has long been an advocate of the right type of comic magazines." Marston held three degrees from Harvard, including a PhD in psychology. He'd been a lawyer, a scientist and a professor. As inventor of the lie detector test, he was obsessed with psychological secrets. He was brought on as a consulting psychologist for Universal Pictures. He'd written screenplays, a novel and dozens of magazine articles.
The comic books of his day were deemed to be, "full of blood curdling masculinity." Marston agreed, but was not deterred. "Unfortunately, that is true, but when a lovely heroine is bound to the stake, comics followers are sure that the rescue will arrive in the nick of time. The reader's wish is to save the girl, not to see her suffer."
Look, if you had a female superhero, her powers could all be about love and truth and beauty, and you could also sell your comic books better to girls.
Marston said, the best way to fend off critics would be to create a female superhero. "Look, if you had a female superhero, her powers could all be about love and truth and beauty, and you could also sell your comic books better to girls. And that would be really important and great because she could show girls that they could do anything."
Even so, Wonder Woman invited public scandal, breaking public mores about what was appropriate for women. An early example came soon after the series launched in 1942 when the National Organization for Decent Literature put Wonder Woman on its blacklist of "Publications Disapproved for Youth" for one reason: "Wonder Woman is not sufficiently dressed."
Marston and Gaines were not deterred. Facing down public outcry, Marston argued, "Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who, I believe, should rule the world."
A woman who should rule the world! This was radical thinking for the 1940s (or today, frankly!) Diana Prince's influence on pop culture would expand over the decades to become a long-running TV series, a cartoon, and find its way on to merchandise and, finally, into the movies. It was recently announced that Marston, too, will be the subject of a film called "Professor Marston and the Wonder Women." Fittingly, it was written and directed by a woman.
Still, the Wonder Woman stands alone as a successful female comic book hero. And in 2017, on the big screen, her brains, strength and heroism would become inspiration for a new generation of young people—like me!
Take the Quiz
Want to Learn More?
- Wilson, Tracy V, and Frey, Holly. "William Moulton Marston & the Creation of Wonder Woman." Stuff You Missed in History Class, How Stuff Works, 12 Jun, 2017. http://www.missedinhistory.com/podcasts/william-moulton-marston.htm. Accessed on 21 Sep, 2017.
- Lepore, Jill. "Secret History of Wonder Woman" Vintage, 28 Oct, 2014. https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/241159/the-secret-history-of-wonder-woman-by-jill-lepore. Accessed on 15 Sep, 2017.
- Lepore, Jill. "The Surprising Origin Story of Wonder Woman" Smithsonian.com, 1 Oct, 2014. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/origin-story-wonder-woman-180952710/. Accessed on 14 Sep, 2017.
- "The Man Behind Wonder Woman Was Inspired by Both Suffragists and Centerfolds" NPR, 27 Oct, 2014. http://www.npr.org/2014/10/27/359078315/the-man-behind-wonder-woman-was-inspired-by-both-suffragists-and-centerfolds. Accessed on 18 Sep, 2017.