Wonder Woman: Our Hometown Superhero
When I was a young girl in the 1980s, Wonder Woman and Lynda Carter were somewhat interchangeable in my mind. It is only now as I settle into my new home in Rye, decades after retiring my Wonder Woman Underoos, that I have the chance to discover the original Wonder Woman and her creator, William Moulton Marston. Marston, a longtime Rye resident, was a fascinating man who, through a combination of creativity, insight, passion and good timing, brought us a female superhero who could thrive in a male-dominated fictional world.
Right in our own backyard, an icon was born, an Amazon woman who came to our country to help good prevail over evil. Over time, she has been exalted as a superhero and presumed to be so much more – a sex symbol, a feminist, pornographic and a lesbian, to name a few. Wonder Woman’s powers, her evolution, and the life of her creator reveal the progress and shortcomings of the 20th century feminist movement.
The first thing that intrigues many people about Marston is that he has two historical claims to fame in very different fields. Prior to creating Wonder Woman, while he was studying psychology in the early 1920s, Marston invented the systolic blood pressure technology that became the basis for the lie detector test. He died at the young age of 54, leaving these significant yet seemingly unrelated marks in history. There is a connection between the polygraph and Wonder Woman, however, if we look closely at Marston. From his earliest years of as a psychologist, he was deeply interested in gender differences, human arousal and the physical response to stimuli; it is these aspects of human nature that connect the dots between lie detection and superheroes.
Marston was a feminist who surrounded himself with some of the leaders in the Women’s Movement. Early on in his career, based both on his research and his interactions with influential women including Margaret Sanger, Marston concluded that women were the superior sex and set out to prove it. Marston started his career in psychology after earning his PhD from Harvard in 1921, and in the beginning, he experienced great success, both as a professor at American University and in his research. His feminist beliefs, however, became more extreme over time and soon he could not hold down a teaching position for more than a year. He was off the tenure path and his career was suffering.
After bouncing around to various universities, Marston worked for a brief time at Universal Studios in California, deepening his love for film and inspiring him to write screenplays. It was the women around Marston who supported him and managed both the breadwinning and childrearing responsibilities, leaving him to study film and pursue creative endeavors. While Marston didn’t exactly lie about his own personal life, he kept much of it secret, protecting his wife, Elizabeth Holloway, his mistress, Olive Byrne, and their children from a world that was not quite ready for their new approach to family. When he moved his family in the early 1930s from California to Rye, they settled in a home called Cherry Orchard off Oakland Beach Avenue. Elizabeth went to work at Metropolitan Life Insurance and Olive, a regular columnist for Family Circle, raised the two children she had with Marston as well as Elizabeth’s two children. With three adults involved in the relationship, each could have it all – family and a successful career. It was an unconventional application of feminist ideals, but it worked for them.
During the 1930s, Marston’s lifelong interests in psychology, women’s rights and the entertainment industry led him down a path to Wonder Woman. He created Wonder Woman in 1941 after identifying a void in popular culture. Marston viewed women as the key to the future, yet there were very few strong female role models. The war was beginning in Europe, women’s rights were gaining recognition, and it was time for a new hero. With Wonder Woman, Marston pushed the boundaries of gender stereotypes, creating a lens through which to view the feminist movement and a mirror to reflect its challenges.
Wonder Woman debuted in December 1941 in DC Comics’ All Star Comics #8. She got her first feature in January 1942, only a couple years after Superman and Batman. Marston based her back story on the Amazonian women in ancient Greece. He describes how the women ruled Amazonia until the men enslaved them, thus destroying the civilization. After escaping to an island, the Amazonian women lived undiscovered until an American Army plane crashed. Princess Diana, who becomes Wonder Woman, is charged with returning the captain to America. Interestingly, America at the time is painted as a land of opportunities for women, a hotbed of progress in the women’s rights movement and the perfect environment to test out Marston’s theory of superiority. In the image of Margaret Sanger and other feminist leaders, Wonder Woman is “the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.”
To William Moulton Marston, women were emotionally superior and sexually powerful; their strengths should be harnessed by society. He did not believe in a notion of women’s rights that required that women conform to a man’s world. In Wonder Woman, he was showing the world that the most powerful woman is one who embodies all aspects of femininity: intelligence, sexuality, strength, and an innate desire to do good.
During World War II, while Marston was still alive, Wonder Woman’s central qualities were upheld. Like the women in the armed forces at the time, rising to fight for their country and step into roles left by men, Wonder Woman broke down barriers and served as a role model, fighting supervillians and the Axis powers. After the war, when women returned to their homes and gender roles took a jarringly antiquated turn, Wonder Woman was recreated to be submissive and weak, little more than a comic pinup. Marston was no longer there to fight for her, and the women’s movement in the country took a back seat to television shows and magazines depicting submissive housewives.
Wonder Woman benefited from the sexual revolution in the late 1960s and 1970s and rose to even greater fame. In the mid-1970s, she was brought to life through the actress Lynda Carter in a popular television show. Carter’s Wonder Woman, like the original, was strong and sexy, symbolic of a new wave of Women’s Liberation. No matter what the challenge, she prevailed with the strength of a superhero and the looks of a beauty queen, sending a complicated message about feminism.
Today, seventy-five years after Wonder Woman’s comic book debut, women continue to face many of the same stereotypes and limitations that this superhero was created to combat. While the time may be right around the corner, we have yet to see a female President of the United States, something Marston believed could happen in the mid-1900s.
The original Wonder Woman is a composite of all that created her, from the winding trajectory of William Moulton Marston’s life to a culture of shifting attitudes towards women. Designed as a role model to inspire women to achieve equal opportunity and power, she is also a tribute to those who Marston loved and respected most in his life. Her beliefs come directly from Margaret Sanger and Elizabeth Holloway Marston while her bracelets, symbolic and powerful, are said to resemble bracelets that Olive Byrne wore. She is an icon that has changed over time, and yet remains unchanged in who she is at her core: a superhero fighting for good over evil and a female pioneer. Women have not achieved all of the milestones Marston thought possible when Wonder Woman was created, yet the fact that she remains an icon serves as a reminder to forge ahead.
Interested in the sources behind this story? Historian Jill Lepore recently published a book, The Secret History of Wonder Woman, and several articles providing an in-depth look at Wonder Woman’s history. Contact the Rye Historical Society for these and other sources on Wonder Woman and William Moulton Marston. Contact Rye Historical Society