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The Secret History of Wonder Woman

on Wed, 12/31/2014 - 00:00

The Secret History of Wonder Woman
In terms of enduring comic book superheroes, Superman came first in 1938, followed by Batman in 1939. Captain America, meanwhile, arrived in 1941 with Wonder Woman making her debut in January 1942.

Whereas Superman, Batman and Captain America were men, however, Wonder Woman was not. Whereas the story of a super powerful alien, Dark Knight vigilante and enhanced super soldier emerged from the minds of professional comic book writers and artists, the Amazon Princess was developed by a psychologist. And while Superman, Batman and Captain America protected mankind against tyranny, Wonder Woman stood up for females across America, advocating a world where women were not only equal but often times superior to their male counterparts.

In her book The Secret History of Wonder Woman (Knopf, 2014), historian Jill Lepore explores the life of William Moulton Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman, and how the Amazon Princess directly emerged from the personal beliefs and experiences of Marston. William Marston was part genius, part charlatan, a certified feminist who lived with both a wife and mistress for the majority of his adult years and likewise had an infatuation with bondage and submission.

Marston’s mistress—Olive Byrne, who gave birth to two of Marston’s four children—was the niece of birth control activist Margaret Sanger, and Sanger’s story is intertwined within the pages of The Secret History of Wonder Woman as well. Just as Sanger emerged from the early Twentieth Century women’s right movement, so did William Moulton Marston and, by extension, Wonder Woman herself.

William Marston attended Harvard University during an era when the right to vote was at the forefront of the women’s movement, and suffragists of the early Twentieth Century often identified themselves with the Amazons of Ancient Greece.

“From the time of Homer, an Amazon had meant a member of a mythic ancient Greek race of women warriors who lived apart from men,” Jill Lepore explains in The Secret History of Wonder Woman. “By the end of the Nineteenth Century, some suffragists, following the work of male anthropologists, had come to believe that a land of Amazons—an ancient matriarchy that predated the rise of patriarchy—had, in fact, once existed.” Thirty years later, that “land of Amazons” would become known as Paradise Island, the birthplace of Wonder Woman.

Marston was enrolled in the Department of Philosophy and Psychology at Harvard, and studied under German psychologist Hugo Münsterberg. Münsterberg had earlier developed a series of tests designed to detect whether or not a person was lying. Although his theory was never proven, Marston continued Münsterberg’s research and devised his own lie detector that solely relied on monitoring blood pressure.

Dr. John Larson of the University of California and his student Leonarde Keeler later expanded upon Marston’s findings to create the polygraph, but Marston continued to assert himself as the “inventor of the lie detector” throughout the remainder of his life. Marston likewise spent considerable effort advocating his “lie detector” as being admissible in court, but to no avail.

“It wasn’t until 1945, in a Wonder Woman comic strip, that Marston finally extracted his vengeance,” Jill Lepore writes. “A bumbling, balding Judge Friendly calls Wonder Woman to the witness stand, in a case in which Priscilla Rich is being tried for crimes committed by a villain known as the Cheetah. Instead of dismissing Wonder Woman’s testimony—and her lie detector—as inadmissible, Judge Friendly welcomes her.”

Hugo Münsterberg did more than inspire William Marston to “invent” the lie detector, however, as he also served as the basis for one of the first supervillains that Wonder Woman ever faced. Münsterberg was a firm opponent to women’s rights, going so far as to suggest that the only reason women should attend school was to make them more interesting wives. Münsterberg also built a psychology lab at Harvard in which he would conduct experiments—mainly on females—during which he would strap the subjects to machines designed to detect deception.

Within the pages of Wonder Woman, meanwhile, Dr. Psycho locks the Amazon Goddess inside an iron cage in his own college psychology laboratory in an effort “to change the independent status of modern American women back to the days of the sultans and slave markets, clanking chains and abject captivity.”

After graduation from the Department of Philosophy and Psychology, as well as Harvard School of Law, William Marston was named chairman of the Psychology Department at American University. It was the furthest his career would ever progress, as scandals would continue to haunt Marston until he was in effect blacklisted from academia. It was while teaching at Tufts University that he met student Olive Byrne, however, and upon her graduation, Marston insisted that Byrne move in with him and his wife.

Elizabeth Holloway Marston was not initially thrilled with the arrangement, but decided that it was the best way for her to have both a career and children—if William wanted a live-in mistress, she reasoned, then that mistress could be the one to raise the kids.

William Marston primarily relied on income from both Elizabeth Holloway and Olive Byrne in his later years but still found ways to keep his name in the public spotlight nonetheless. When Byrne was hired as a writer for Family Circle magazine, for instance, many of her stories involved visiting the “world’s first consulting psychologist.” One of those articles was about comic books, which were under fire by mainstream media for being detrimental to America’s youth. Marston disagreed, arguing that comic books represented “wish fulfillment” for children.

“The two wishes behind Superman are certainly the soundest of all,” Marston explained. “They are, in fact, our national aspirations of the moment—to develop unbeatable national might, and to use this great power, when we get it, to protect innocent, peace-loving people from destructive, ruthless evil. You don’t think for a minute that it is wrong to imagine the fulfillment of those two aspirations for the United States of America, do you? Then why should it be wrong or harmful for children to imagine the same things for themselves, personally, when they read Superman?”

The article caught the eye of Max Gaines, publisher of All-American Publications, the forerunner of DC Comics. He immediately hired William Marston for his editorial advisory board, hoping to curtail further condemnation of the industry. Marston had different plans, however, and argued that the best way to combat criticism of superheroes was to create a female version.

“A male hero, at best, lacks the qualities of maternal love and tenderness which are as essential to a normal child as the breath of life,” Jill Lepore quotes Marston in The Secret History of Wonder Woman. “Suppose your child’s ideal becomes a superman who uses his extraordinary power to help the weak. The most important ingredient in the human happiness recipe still is missing—love. It’s smart to be strong. It’s big to be generous. But it’s sissified, according to exclusively masculine rules, to be tender, loving, affectionate, and alluring. ‘Aw, that’s girl’s stuff!’ snorts our young comics’ reader. ‘Who wants to be a girl?’ And that’s the point—not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, power.”

William Marston initially named his creation Suprema the Wonder Woman, but then shortened it to simply Wonder Woman. He also insisted on hiring Harry G. Peter as the artist for his superhero, a sixty-year-old newspaper illustrator who had covered the suffragette movement. Captain America appeared on the scene as Marston and Peter were developing Wonder Woman in 1941, and the patriotic outfit of Wonder Woman was influenced by Captain America’s red, white and blue uniform—although Wonder Woman was a bit more scantily clad.

The bracelets that Wonder Woman wears were directly inspired by the actual bracelets worn by Olive Byrne, meanwhile, and the “Lasso of Truth” paid homage to Marston’s lie detector.

Then there’s the matter of bondage within the pages of the early Wonder Woman comic books. Jill Lepore draws a direct corollary from Wonder Woman being in chains to cartoons of the early Twentieth Century in which woman were portrayed in a similar fashion, breaking free of their restraints as a representation of the women’s rights movement. The same can be said of Wonder Woman, who becomes powerless when chained by man but still finds a way to break free and defeat the forces of evil nonetheless. Marston, however, apparently had other motives as well.

“This, my dear friend, is the one truly great contribution of my Wonder Woman strip to moral education of the young,” Marston wrote Max Gaines. “The only hope for peace is to teach people who are full of pep and unbound force to enjoy being bound—enjoy submission to kind authority, wise authority, not merely tolerate such submission. Wars will only cease when humans enjoy being bound.”

William Moulton Marston was both a genius and charlatan, and his life was a contradictory conundrum if ever there was one. But it was that life, filled with paradox, that inevitably gave birth to the world’s greatest female superhero—a true Amazon Goddess that remains as popular in the Twenty First Century as she did during the 1940s.

Anthony Letizia

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