Wonder Woman’s wonder women

14 June 2017

Image of Elissavet Ntoulia
Elissavet Ntoulia

After 75 years, Wonder Woman has finally battled her way in to cinemas. Discover more about the women who inspired an icon: a story of bondage, bracelets and birth control.

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Wonder Woman’s debut in Sensation Comics #1, January 1942. (© 1942 DC Comics, Inc. All rights reserved)

“Neglected amazons to rule men in 1000 years, says psychologist” the Washington Post read in 1935. In 2017, still some years away from the fulfilment of the prophecy, a misogynist rules the free world while Wonder Woman, iconic daughter of the mythical and god-like Amazons, finally stars in her own motion picture (directed by a woman, no less).

The DC comics character Wonder Woman was formed out of clay back in 1941 in the pages of All Star Comics, written by William Moulton Marston under the pseudonym Charles Moulton. Marston, a psychologist, was the creator of the systolic blood pressure test, which went on to became an important component of the modern polygraph, or lie detector test. This was thanks to his wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston, who first brought up the link between her emotions and blood pressure to Marston, telling him that when she got “mad or excited, her blood pressure seemed to climb”.

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British heart surgeon Dr James Mackenzie’s 1906 ink-writing polygraph developed from Dr. William Moulton’s lie detector. Image credit: Wellcome Library.

Unlike Wonder Woman’s famous lasso of truth, the invention Marston contributed to remains of questionable utility. In fact, many things about Marston and his original Wonder Woman stories were controversial: although he considered women superior to men in many ways (for example, in terms of honesty and the speed/accuracy of their work), when the habit of people tying up or otherwise restraining each other raised a few eyebrows, he deflected, claiming that “women are exciting for this one reason –  it is the secret of women’s allure –  women enjoy submission”.

By this he meant the submission emotion, calling it a noble practice that women are more capable of, saying that “only when the control of self by others is more pleasant than the unbound assertion of self in human relationships can we hope for a stable, peaceful human society”. Additionally, any eroticism inferred by readers about the bondage trope in Wonder Woman is justified too, as Marston felt that only by seeing it as something pleasurable would people understand the benefit of the submission emotion.

Interestingly, the early stories written by Marston often had Wonder Woman lose her Amazonian strength if she was chained up by a man, only to have her ultimately free herself from those chains “to signify her emancipation from men”. Chains of course played an important role in the suffrage movement Marston witnessed first hand.

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Left: Lou Rogers’ “Tearing Off the Bonds” from a 1912, issue of Judge. Right: H.G. Peter drawing of Wonder Woman c. 1943.

The clay Wonder Woman was moulded from in the comic was effectively imbued with both the suffragism and feminism Marston encountered in the women who touched his life in various ways. This can be traced back to 1911 when he was a freshman in Harvard. He heard British suffragist Emily Pankhurst (who had been invited by the Harvard Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage) speaking at a dance hall next to campus, as she was banned from speaking on the campus itself.

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Wonder Woman: caring, selfless and very, very quick. (© DC Comics / WB Pictures. All rights reserved)

And it was Marston’s wife, Elizabeth Holloway, who was partly responsible for the creation of Wonder Woman herself. Marston wanted to create a counterpoint to the glut of (all male) superheroes in the 1940s by writing a hero who, instead of using brute strength or outlandish gadgets, conquered his foes with love. Holloway liked the concept, but insisted the hero be a woman.

Feeling that “even girls don’t want to be girls” because they weren’t interested in being tender, sensitive and peaceful, Marston wrote Wonder Woman as an example of how he thought modern women should act and behave: he wanted to show her as strong, powerful; a competent leader who was also feminine and beautiful. By creating a character with the qualities he thought girls admired (strength) and qualities he thought made women special (peace-loving and submissive), he hoped to create an icon everyone could look up to.

The influence important women had over Marston’s work is clear. In those early days, Wonder Woman was surrounded by her sisters at the Holliday College (led by her sidekick Etta Candy) who would tag along on various adventures with Wonder Woman and offer support. The Holliday girls wore sweaters bearing an H logo: a mash up of Holloway (Elizabeth’s surname) and Mount Holyoke, the first US women’s college, a suffragist hub and Elizabeth Holloway’s school. Holloway studied psychology and law and she was Encyclopaedia Britannica’s editor. Her favourite book was about Sappho and her poetry.

The couple’s unorthodox private life led to further inspiration in his work. In 1926 Marston gave Holloway an ultimatum: either his androgynous research assistant, Olive Byrne, would live with them…or he would leave. The couple had been part of a threesome before: according to Holloway “no one knows more about the production of Wonder Woman than Marjorie W. Huntley” who appears to be the first member of Marston’s ever extending unconventional family.

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Wonder Woman’s bullet deflecting gauntlets inspired by Olive Byrne. (© DC Comics / WB Pictures. All rights reserved)

Holloway faced the choice between motherhood and professional life, so Byrne’s arrival suited everyone: Byrne would raise her and Elizabeth’s children by Marston, and Elizabeth would provide for the family of eight while Marston looked to find permanent employment. While Byrne is often thought to have inspired Wonder Woman’s physical appearance (there is a clear resemblance), Marston himself only ever said that the pair of bracelets she regularly wore made it into his comic, eventually becoming Wonder Woman’s bullet-deflecting gauntlets.

Marston’s close ties to women involved in various feminist movements only added to the Wonder Woman character he created. Olive Byrne once said that to know all about Wonder Woman all you had to do was read Margaret Sanger’s Woman and the New Race; Sanger was Byrne’s aunt and her mother was Ethel Byrne. Byrne’s mother was the first woman to go on a hunger strike when she and her sister were arrested for opening the country’s first birth control clinic; Ethel and Margaret eventually went on to found Planned Parenthood. When Marston died in 1947, Byrne and Holloway continued to live together afterwards.

With each decade that followed, Wonder Woman has evolved to reflect and absorb the gender constructions of the times as different writers have taken over her stories: from the patriotic 1940s through to the plain-clothes spy years in the 1970s, and onto the more overtly feminist and queer themes of the late 1980s and 2000s.

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Wonder Woman on the Western Front.

Wonder Woman’s ongoing mission for peace, love and equality are still strongly connected to Margaret Sanger’s philosophy that “love is the greatest force of the universe”. It might sound cheesy but even in 2017, in her first big screen outing (75 years after her comic book debut), it’s through her own capacity to love (and the love she sees in others) that inspires Wonder Woman to fulfil her potential.

Although there was a lot of unfair pressure on the film to perform well (Will they ever make a female superhero film again!? How will a film made by a woman perform!? etc.), it smashed records with Amazonian strength: its director Patty Jenkins now holds the record for the biggest US opening by a female director, and it’s still impressively attracting crowds a couple of weeks in (keeping new release The Mummy with Tom Cruise off the top spot). Money aside, the film is also critically acclaimed and has given the superhero genre the demigod-like kick it was waiting for. And all it needed was women getting a chance to flex their superhero muscles (shame it took so long).

A female superhero is both as complex as the people who create her and society as a whole, and there is still a way to go. Fellow comic book character Lois Lane puts it better:

Wonder Woman is a mirror of human truth. She reflects the contradictions of the world…takes them onto herself and gives you truth, love and respect in return.

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Thanks to © DC Comics / WB Pictures. All rights reserved

Image of Elissavet Ntoulia
Elissavet Ntoulia
Elissavet Ntoulia is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.