Wonder Woman, Her Creator, and His Lovers

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Dr. William Moulton Marston created the Wonder Woman comics in 1941. But you probably haven’t heard of him unless you’re a comics aficionado. That can be easily remedied if you pick up The Secret History of Wonder Woman. I promise you, dear reader, that you will learn everything you never wanted to know about this man and his family life.

In her 2014 book, Harvard Professor of American History and New Yorker writer Dr. Jill Lepore entices the audience with an unqualified premise—this is not a book of superhero scholarship. I judged a book by its (fabulous) cover and intriguing title. I believed it was going to be a thorough dissertation of the comics and the impact they had on society.

It was instead a well-researched and comprehensive examination of William Moulton Marston’s personal life and women’s history, with small portions of the comics themselves woven throughout. Marston’s story absolutely dominates throughout more than half the book, and with good reason. He was not what would have qualified as a typical man in the 1920s through 1940s.

This Harvard-educated psychologist started out his life on a legitimate path—he went straight through school and received his Ph.D. Like many academics, he devoted himself to teaching and scholarship.

The trouble began when Marston found the spotlight. He loved it, and at first did adequately well. He wrote papers, taught and got to work testing out various hypotheses. One in particular stands out—that blood pressure rises when a lie is told.

This has led some people to credit him with inventing the lie detector test. He did not. He may be more accurately described as the “father of the lie detector.” He created the systolic blood pressure test, which became a component to the modern polygraph.

Dr. Marston (right) testing his blood pressure test as pictured in a 1922 newspaper photo.
Dr. Marston (right) testing his blood pressure test as pictured in a 1922 newspaper photo.

 

Due to several scandals, however this “devilishly handsome” man soon spiraled into a failed academic who could not hold a steady job. He was, among other things, a writer of popular psychology who forced his wife into a polyamorous relationship (by threatening her with a divorce) with one (and sometimes two) other women, an ardent feminist, a shameless self-promoter and stuntman and a liar, who often left the contributions of the women he professed to love squarely in the background of history.

He was also a bondage enthusiast who emphasized it extensively in the comic book (Wonder Woman is tied up ad nauseam). As Lepore puts it, his obsession with submission and bondage didn’t quite measure up: “Quite how this story embraces women’s rights is difficult to figure. It’s feminism as fetish.”

The Amazonian Princess was influenced not only by both his own life (with the golden lasso of truth symbolizing his obsession with it) and the women he loved, but also by the birth control pill and the women’s suffrage movement.

Marston and Elizabeth Hollaway married in 1915. She was an educated and unorthodox strong woman who fought against a prejudiced society that would see her uneducated and married at an early age. She consistently broke free of her chains and did so well that at times she was the sole source of financial support for the household that included herself, Marston, his mistress Olive Byrne and four children.

Byrne was the niece of Margaret Sanger and often a silent contributor to his pop psychology writings, who wore gold bracelets as a symbol of her and Marston’s binding love. As Lepore points out and tries to emphasize, Wonder Woman herself was the thread that held together and made sense of his life.

To say Marston was unorthodox is an understatement, but it is solely because of him (and his wife Elizabeth who told him to make his superhero a woman), that we have one of feminism’s most iconic superheroes today. The Amazonian princess who came to America to fight for peace, justice and women’s rights was indeed created by a man who believed that a woman’s power was best demonstrated with the literal breaking of chains.

-Whitney Z.

Explore Wonder Woman’s Backstory in…

The Secret History of Wonder Woman

Whitney Z. is a native Pittsburgher. She is currently a substitute Library Assistant who loves audiobooks, music and movies. She believes firmly that NASA made a mistake in demoting Pluto and would sincerely like for said decision to be reversed.