Feminism and the birth of Wonder Woman

The success of the superhero comic blockbuster Wonder Woman – the sixth biggest grossing film in New Zealand this year at $3.6 million – contrasts with the feeble returns for film on her origins, Professor Martson and the Wonder Women.

On Mojo, it ranks a lowly 296 out 352 in the 2017 rankings despite a fascinating backstory detailed in a book, The Secret History of Wonder Woman, by historian Jill Leporte.

William Moulton Marston and his wife, Sadie Elizabeth Holloway, were both born in 1893, first met as schoolchildren in Boston after Holloway’s parents emigrated from the Isle of Man, and married in 1915 when both were at university.

They were both above-average students and were swept up in the radical movements of the 1920s – women’s suffrage, socialism and free-thinking lifestyles.

In 1921, after 10 years at Harvard, Marston graduated with a PhD and three degrees. He found a niche as a lecturer and researcher in psychology, while Holloway, who preferred being called Elizabeth, failed to overcome prejudice against hiring female academics.

Refused a doctorate at Harvard, she graduated from Radcliffe, the women’s college, but worked with her husband on his first major discovery, a lie detector test.  

The polygraph could detect false statements by changes in blood pressure. Marston had worked on prototypes while doing army service in 1918.

While others made a commercial success out of similar devices, Marston preferred to pursue an academic career based on his psychological theories.

William Marston, right, using a lie detector. Olive Byrne is behind the screen

Although Marton had several setbacks, including a court case over the lie detector, a turning point came in 1925 when he met a student at Tufts University, Olive Byrne.

Her mother, Ethel, and auntie, Margaret Sanger, were staunch feminists, who advocated birth control and equal rights.

Olive was immediately attracted to the Marstons and their social experiments, which had moved on from lie detection to sexuality. These included notions about the superiority of women and the need for male superiority.

After graduation, Olive moved into the Marston household. By this time, Elizabeth was in publishing but, in her mid-30s, wanted a family.

Olive was also writing articles for publication but soon became a full-time baby carer, first with Elizabeth’s son born in 1928 and, in 1931, her own son. A year or so later, both women gave birth again within five months.

Olive had concocted an imaginary marriage and described herself as a widow, as the household maintained appearances for the outside world.

As Marston’s career continued to nosedive amid rumour and failed ventures, including a brief stint in Hollywood, Elizabeth became the main income-earner, working in business. Olive helped Marston’s profile by contributing articles about him to Family Circle magazine while not revealing her connection to him.

In 1937, Marston made headlines by declaring, 80 years before Hillary Clinton, that women would rule the world. At the same time Margaret Sanger won a victory for her birth control campaign.

The time was ripe for a female superhero in the then-burgeoning world of comic books and strips. Olive’s brother, Jack, was working in the comic industry and in 1940 he unveiled the character of Amazona, The Mighty Woman.

The comic industry had quickly adapted to the outbreak of war in Europe, with Superman and Batman having to tone down their “super” powers for ideological reasons. Batman hated guns and Superman was fascistic to some.

Marston was employed as a consultant to defend comics against criticism that their violent tales were dangerous to children. He also saw an opportunity to spread his feminist message under the pen-name of “Charles Moutlon.”

Suprema, the Wonder Woman was born in 1941 but lost the Suprema tag before the first comic book was published just days before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour.

Wonder Woman, like Olive, wore bracelets that repelled bullets. She had a lasso that worked as a lie detector when it captured villains and she invariably had to break free of bonds or chains in each story.

Like other superheroes, she had a second identity (Diana Prince), based on Elizabeth’s office work but she also supported progressive causes and battled evildoers who didn’t believe equality for women.

Wonder Woman became a newspaper strip with the bondage toned down and by 1944 had 10 million readers. The heady days were not last, however, and Marston was struck by polio.

He was bedridden and in 1945 the newspaper strip was cancelled. Publishers succumbed to a code that watered comics down and Wonder Woman became domesticated.

In 1947, Marston died of cancer aged 53. Elizabeth and Olive maintained the household with the four teenagers. One later married Margaret Sanger’s grand-daughter.

Their secret was not revealed during their lifetimes. A third woman, Marjorie Huntley, who often lived in the household, died in 1986 without anyone knowing her links to the Wonder Woman phenomenon.

Elizabeth and Olive were still living together when Olive died in 1990, aged 86. Elizabeth lived to 100 and died in 1993. There were no obituaries.

As for Wonder Woman, she launched MS magazine in July 1972 with a cover that echoed Marston’s call of a woman for president, heralding a new age for feminism.

In 1974, Cathy Lee Crosby starred in a TV movie that was set in the 1970s and had no resemblance to the 1940s version.

A TV series, The New Original Wonder Woman, was closer and ran for four years with Lynda Carter (pictured), a former beauty queen. It was largely denounced by the feminist movement on grounds that the struggles of ordinary women had nothing to do with supernatural heroines or models.

Today, the heritage of Wonder Woman is more likely to identify with those causes championed by the Marstons and the Sangers: sexual radicalism, suffragism and birth control, thanks to the scholarship of Lepore and Angela Robinson's film. 

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