Wonder Woman's dirty history: how polyamory birthed the first female superhero The secret story behind Wonder Woman's creation involves saucy affairs and psychological experiments.

[Ed.: Besides being associated with outsize sexiness worldwide, Wonder Woman has also become synonymous with the idea of female power. In this excerpt from Eureka! The Surprising Stories Behind the Ideas That Shaped the World, we learn the secret story behind her creation.]

William Moulton Marston was a Renaissance man: He earned a law degree and a doctorate in psychology, and published Emotions of Normal People. He also made a significant scientific contribution when his wife, Elizabeth, remarked to him that when she "became angry or excited her blood pressure seemed to climb." This sparked an idea in her husband, resulting in his developing of the polygraph (otherwise known as the lie detector).

William Moulton Marston.

In 1940, Olive Byrne (his former student from Tufts) interviewed Dr. Marston for the magazine Family Circle. The piece was titled Don't Laugh at the Comics, and in it he promoted the concept that comics possessed educational potential as they at least got kids reading. The article caught the attention of Maxwell Charles Gaines, who hired Marston as a consultant for his company, DC Comics.

Related: 11 groundbreaking women comic book artists that prove male artists are mediocre

William wanted to create a superheroine who would serve as a role model for girls. For his inspiration he needed to look no farther than his wife, Elizabeth (Sadie) Holloway Marston.

In era when most women did not attend university, Elizabeth obtained a master's degree in psychology from Holyoke College. When William entered Harvard to study law, she wanted to join him, but the Ivy League university excluded women. Instead, women had to go to Harvard's sister school, Radcliffe. Elizabeth rejected that choice, dismissing it as "lovely law for ladies," and headed instead to Boston University.

Post-graduation, Elizabeth embarked on a 35-year working career. Some of her jobs included indexing the documents of the first fourteen Congresses; lecturing on law, ethics, psychology at New York universities; and working as an editor for Encyclopedia Britannia and McCall's magazine. She waited until age 35 to have her first baby and then promptly returned to work.

Elizabeth was a volunteer in her husband's experiments.

William developed his heroine with assistance from Elizabeth, whom Marston believed to be a model for his era's unconventional, liberated woman. His heroine, like his spouse, was the ideal emancipated woman – one who fought prudery, prejudice, sexism, racism, and, as a superheroine, crime. Now he needed another female for inspiration for his heroine's appearance.

He found it in Olive Byrne. When William fell in love with his former student, he asked his wife if she would mind if that all lived together. She agreed to the polyamorous relationship. William had two children with Elizabeth (Pete and Olive Ann), and two with Olive (Bryne and Donn).

For William's comic creation, he copied Olive's black hair and blue eyes. He drew on his character the heavy silver bracelets that Olive always wore on each wrist (he made them bullet deflectors). The fact that his comic character had a body that would do a supermodel proud and was six feet tall was sheer fantasy, as was her unique apparel.

Olive taking notes at a polygraph test. Note her bracelets!
Marston's views of bondage come through in early Wonder Woman panels like this one. He believed women were mentally stronger than men and would come to rule. “The next 100 years will see the beginning of an American matriarchy—a nation of Amazons in the psychological rather than physical sense,” Marston told the Harvard Club of New York in 1937

William outfitted her in high stiletto boots, hot pants decorated with stars, and a bustier that left a mere wisp to the imagination. In her hand was a magic lasso, which, when used to tie up villains, forced them to tell the truth (shades of the lie detector!). Instead of vaporizing her enemies, as her male superhero counterparts did, her magic lasso forced them to look into their own hearts, where she believed some remnant of good always resided. It's no wonder that she was named Wonder Woman.

The heroine made her dazzling debut in 1941 in All Star Comics. She was described as "beautiful as Aphrodite, wise as Athena, swifter than Hermes, and stronger than Hercules."

Her superheroine task was to help the Allies defeat the Axis powers. Marston wrote that she was to remain in America "to defend the last citadel of democracy, and of equal rights for women." In the course of her endeavors, she was often depicted in situations that simulated bondage, which makes one question how good a role model she was for girls.

Wonder Woman enlisted.

Marston continued to create issues with Wonder Woman and lived with Elizabeth and Olive until his death from cancer at age 54, in 1947. His two widows remained close, and Elizabeth supported Olive until her death in the 1980s. Elizabeth lives to be 100 spending her last three years in Connecticut with her son, Pete.

Related: Girls want (and need) more female superheroes

As for the iconoclastic Amazing Amazon, she went on to help destroy European communism, all without acquiring a single gray hair or even a hint of cellulite. She remains the most powerful brunette in strapless spandex to educate three generations of action-loving superheroines.

Reprinted from Eureka! The Surprising Stories Behind the Ideas That Shaped the World by Marlene Wagman-Geller by arrangement with Perigee, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., Copyright (c) 2010 by Marlene Wagman-Geller.

Join the conversation 💬

3 thoughts on “<span class="entry-title-primary">Wonder Woman's dirty history: how polyamory birthed the first female superhero</span> <span class="entry-subtitle">The secret story behind Wonder Woman's creation involves saucy affairs and psychological experiments.</span>”

  1. they forgot to add how in the past Wonder Woman weakness was if she was tied up by man, and or talked in to being tied up by any man by her wrists she lose all her powers, kinky??

    Reply
  2. As a comic book fan, I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the behind the scenes history of Wonder Woman. I also agree with Dr. Marston's comment about children expanding their vocabulary through the use of Comic Books and the comics page of the local newspaper. I might also add Perry Mason mysteries to the list. Fortunately, Dr. Martson had a high moral purpose (World War II) too apply his theories. Unlike many of the dark themes that confront today's youth when they read graphic novels. I believe that we need more people like Dr. Marston, Rod Serling, George Lucas and Gene Roddenberry.

    Reply
  3. The article itself is fascinating, to think that a character such as this was a result of such progressive thinking. I DO have issues with the title of the piece however! You make some kind of assumption that polyamory is "dirty". The article itself points out that the relationships were all open, honest and with consenting adults, in fact, the two women (whom most people would assume would have a problem with the arrangement) appear to be good friends and supportive of each other. The very societal standards that they creators of Wonder Woman challenged are reflected in whatever headline writer's prejudices led them to call polyamory "dirty"!

    Reply

Add to the conversation