This weekend, Wonder Woman is back in the spotlight thanks to Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, a new film that traces the surprising origins of the beloved character.
The true-life tale behind the Amazon warrior’s controversial creator has remained shrouded in mystery for decades.
William Moulton Marston, who published his first Wonder Woman strip in 1941, led a double life not unlike the superheroes he wrote about. Working to uncover his secret identity like a real-life Lois Lane, New Yorker writer Jill Lepore pieced together the complicated life of the scholar, writer and inventor in 2014 with her book, The Secret History of Wonder Woman.
Like his creation, who championed peace and love while simultaneously beating bad guys to a pulp, Marston was a man of seemingly endless contradictions. He invented the lie detector, but kept a mistress whom he falsely claimed was a blood relative. As a self-styled feminist and student of the budding field of psychology at Harvard University, he formed a thesis that women are mentally stronger than men, but argued that they are also happiest being submissive. He personally and professionally encouraged women to stand up to the patriarchy, but may have suppressed his wife’s career as a scholar, while taking credit for her groundbreaking research.
Sadie Elizabeth Holloway was Marston’s public wife, but he was also secretly married to his former student, Olive Byrne. The threesome lived happily together under one roof, and Marston fathered children with both women (although Byrne’s offspring were told their father had passed away).
“It’s so bizarre, I think they thought it was very funny,” Lepore told NPR of the unconventional relationship in a 2014 interview. “In a certain way, it is very funny – like that they’re putting one over on everybody.”
In one of the family’s many ironic contradictions, Byrne worked as a writer for Family Circle magazine, offering housewives tips on how to build a wholesome home, while living a life most of her readers would consider highly immoral, not to mention illegal.
“The funniest thing of it all to me is [they have] this really triangular family arrangement, but in the ’30s [Marston’s mistress] Olive Byrne takes a job as a staff writer at Family Circle magazine writing advice for housewives,” Lepore explained. “Family Circle, which starts in 1932, [is] a giveaway at the grocery store [and] the stories that she writes are sort of a ‘how to raise your children’ in the most conventional possible way.”
Despite what some have called Marston’s blatant hypocrisy, his ties to the early progressive-era suffrage, feminist and birth control movements are well documented. In fact, his involvement with the Harvard Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage – and specifically a 1911 campus scandal, in which the university forbade feminist icon Emmeline Pankhurst from speaking on campus – left an indelible impression on the budding writer.
Marston would go on to use iconography from the suffrage movement as symbolism in his comic strips. “One of the things that’s a defining element of Wonder Woman is that if a man binds her in chains, she loses all of her Amazonian strength,” Lepore told NPR. “So in almost every episode of the early comics, the ones that Marston wrote, she’s chained up or she’s roped up … and she has to break free of these chains. … That’s [what] Marston would always say – ‘in order to signify her emancipation from men.’ But those chains are a really important part of the feminist and suffrage struggles of the 1910s that Marston had a front-row seat for.”
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And the symbolism goes even deeper than the symbolic breaking of chains. Lepore notes that “women chained themselves to the gate outside the White House in protest” and would often wear chains during marches, harkening back to their earlier involvement in abolitionist campaigns of the previous century. In her book, Lepore suggests another, kinkier explanation for the chains. With his views on women’s suppressed desire for submissiveness, Marston was probably acting out some bondage fantasies with his fictional heroine.
Both the private and professional life of Marston – who was most famous during his life as a psychologist – is a prime subject for Freudian analysis. But his contribution to what he called the “blood-curdling masculinity” of superheroes made comic books, and now comic book movies, more accessible to generations of female audiences.
Before he died in 1947, Marston explained Wonder Woman’s value to Superman publisher M.C. Gaines. “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,” he said. “And that would be really important and great because she could show girls that they could do anything.”
- Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is now playing in theaters.