The origins of Wonder Woman

‘Before she was Wonder Woman she was Diana, Princess of the Amazons,’ or so begins the 2017 blockbuster movie. Exactly how an Amazon from centuries BC became today’s superhero is a story in its own right, according to John Man, author of Amazons...

This story leads back almost a century into an America of dominant men, a few rebellious women, and one man who was amazingly feminist in one respect; he dreamt up Wonder Woman as an icon of female power. The story is an intriguing mixture of very public exposure and a veil of secrets recently revealed by Jill Lepore in her superb 2014 account of Wonder Woman’s origins (The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Scribe Publications, New York and Vintage, London).

Some of the groundwork was laid by the extraordinary Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a feminist sociologist who wrote several very serious books arguing for women’s rights. Fortunately, she also had a sense of humour. Herland, written in 1915, is the story of three male adventurers in South America who stumble upon ‘an undiscovered country of a strictly Amazonian nature’ (the only mention of ‘Amazon’ in the book). It is the homeland of a community of women, in which virgin birth produces only girls. All the women look after all the children.

Gilman was writing at a time when women’s rights were a major issue: women were going to college in ever-increasing numbers, ‘suffragists’ were demanding the vote. Spearheaded by Margaret Sanger in the magazine Woman Rebel, the campaign included birth control, with its challenging subhead: ‘No Gods, No Masters’. In the US, as in England, there were arrests for distributing information about contraception, as well as trials, imprisonments, hunger strikes. Margaret Sanger’s sister, Ethel Byrne, was the first female prisoner in the US to be force-fed, before the 19th Amendment gave women the vote in 1920.

One of the New Women at Mt Holyoke, a leading woman’s college, was Elizabeth Holloway, whose boyfriend William Moulton Marston was at Harvard. Holloway was keen on Greek, while Marston was doing research in experimental psychology and also dabbling in screenplays for silent movies. He was clever, handsome, restless, ambitious, and he had a big idea: that one could tell if someone was lying by measuring their blood pressure. Experiments led him to invent the first lie-detector. The two married in 1915, and both went to law school, he in Cambridge (Harvard), she in Boston (Radcliffe).

In 1918, Marston was sent to treat shell-shock victims in upstate New York and started an affair with the camp’s librarian, Marjorie Huntley, a deeply committed suffragette with a passion for ancient Greece. A fourth was added to this list of characters: Olive Byrne, Ethel Byrne’s daughter and Margaret Sanger’s niece. Studying for a Ph. D. at Tufts University, she wore heavy silver bracelets on her wrists and had a candy-loving friend – two of the many elements that would eventually be worked into the creation of Wonder Woman.

In 1925, Marston became assistant professor of psychology at Tufts. Aged 32, he and Byrne took to each other. She was soon acting as his assistant, principally with his work on what he called ‘captivation,’ what today we would call ‘bondage.’ Byrne moved in with Marston and Holloway, occasionally joined by Huntley. It sounds a recipe for disaster, but the times were full of social experiment. Their aim was independence; freedom from male dominance, marriage, children and careers, though this proved a tricky challenge when Holloway fell pregnant. The four of them came up with a solution. Marston could keep Huntley as his mistress; Holloway would have the baby and keep her job on the Encyclopaedia Britannica, while Olive Byrne would give up her Ph. D to look after the baby.

Comics had tremendous appeal, but there was a problem: their ‘blood-curdling masculinity’. What was needed was a female role model...

In January 1928 Marston and Byrne set up a widely-reported experiment in a New York theatre as a publicity stunt, to measure the blood pressure in six girls watching Greta Garbo in The Flesh and the Devil. By chance, Carl Laemmle, head of Universal Studios in Hollywood, was looking for a psychologist to help him revaluate the strict rules of censorship. Laemmle read about the experiment, and invited Marston to Hollywood as Director of PR. He went with Holloway, Byrne and the new baby, Pete, and the group spent almost three years there. While in Hollywood, the group took another step into non-conformity: Olive Byrne married someone claiming to be ‘William Richard’, who was in fact William Marston, now technically a bigamist.  She bore two children, both named ‘Richard’ after their imaginary father who (Olive claimed) had died in a World War 1 gas attack.

Soon after Holloway, or ‘Mrs Richard’, bore another child (a girl), and all four adults and the four children moved to Rye, NY, now not so much a family as a commune. Everyone did their bit and everyone loved the children; Marston and Holloway formally adopted Byrne’s two sons, who thereafter had two mothers, in an odd mix of feminism and mutual support that worked remarkably well.

On November 10th 1937 Marston, ever the publicist, promoted his latest book in a press conference at which he announced that women would rule the world and America would become a matriarchy, ‘a nation of Amazons in a psychological rather than a physical sense.’ The press loved it.

The same year saw the birth of a phenomenon: comic books. Maxwell Charles Gaines realized that he could commission his own comics, and keep the profits. Suddenly, here was a new art form, which turned into a publishing explosion. In 1938, Action Comics introduced Superman. By summer of 1939, Superman had dozens of rivals, one of them Batman. Soon, comic books sold by the million.  

The boom coincided with the outbreak of World War 2, and Superman suddenly seemed less of a fighter for justice, more like a Nazi Stormtrooper. Some educationalists deplored the violence and popularity of comics. Critics wondered if comics were Fascist, designed to undermine children’s minds. Max Gaines became worried.

During this time, it would turn out to be Olive Byrne who gave Marston his big break. In a magazine article, she profiled him as the one man who could tell American mothers about the dangers and benefits of comics. Superman was an excellent model, he said. Comics were fine, as long as they didn’t show torture. Max Gaines happened to read Olive Byrne’s article, and saw a solution to his problem. He offered Marston the position of consultant psychologist on an advisory board for his company, DC (for Detective Comics).

Suddenly, Marston was in a good position to reinforce his view that women would one day rule the world. What was needed, he told Gaines, was a female super-hero, a latter-day Amazon. Comics had tremendous appeal, but there was a problem: their ‘blood-curdling masculinity’. What was needed was a female role model, ‘a feminine character with all the strength of a Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.’ Gaines was sceptical – comic book heroines hadn’t worked. ‘Ah, but they weren’t superwomen!’ countered MarstonMen ‘actually submit to women now. Give them an alluring woman stronger than themselves to submit to and they’ll be proud to become her willing slaves!’

Gaines reluctantly agreed to give it a go, and Wonder Woman made her debut in All Star Comics #8, in December 1941, with Marston credited as consulting psychologist and writer (under a partial pseudonym, Charles Moulton). ‘Introducing Wonder Woman’ opens with a sprinting figure dressed in a sporty, star-spangled skirt, as if made from an American flag. She has bracelets on her wrists and a tiara holding her dark, curly hair. The opening text, in easy-to-read capitals, links her with Greek gods (ignoring the fact that in Greek legends the Amazons were fighting against the Greeks):

At last, in a world torn by the hatreds and wars of men, appears A WOMAN to whom the problems and feats of men are mere child’s play… With a hundred times the agility and strength of our best male athletes and strongest wrestlers, she appears as though from nowhere… As lovely as Aphrodite – as wise as Athena – with the speed of Mercury and the strength of Hercules, she is known only as Wonder Woman.

She lives on uncharted Paradise Island, peopled only by women. The plot begins when a plane crashes, and the princess (Wonder Woman) and a friend pick up the injured pilot and take him to hospital. He’s Steven Trevor, of US Intelligence. Since then revamps have renamed Paradise Island Themyscira, the Amazons’ original homeland, and it is an amalgamation of Marston’s life and those of his women.

The Greek connection comes from Huntley, the Eden-like bliss of Paradise Island from Gilman’s Herland. Wonder Woman is a product of Margaret Sanger’s fight for equality, birth control and sexual liberation (not that Marston could make that explicit). Diana’s bracelets, based on Olive Byrne’s habit, play several roles: they symbolize a memory of male oppression, they protect her, and they represent weakness, because if they are chained together – notice the theme of bondage – she loses her strength. The bracelets are one of her classical attributes, like Cupid’s bow. Another is her Golden Lasso, or Lasso of Truth, which is both a lie detector – recalling the device Marston invented – and bondage in another guise. Like Olive Byrne, Wonder Woman has a friend called Candy, who loves sweets. Truth, or rather its absence, was a major factor in Marston’s life, and in the lives of his women. Wonder Woman, too, has a secret life: she must hide her identity, working as a nurse named Diana Prince.

‘Introducing Wonder Woman’ was a hit. In January 1942, she became the lead comic-book character, and thus became the third superhero, along with Superman and Batman, to have their own series. She’s never been out of print since, or out of favour. In the 1960s, when Shirley Chisholm (the first black woman in Congress) was still in contention for the Democratic presidential nomination, Wonder Woman was on the cover of Ms magazine, on the march down Main Street under the slogan Wonder Woman for president. A TV series in the 1970s made Lynda Carter a star. Wonder Woman was enough of an icon to be named by the UN as an honorary ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls in 2016, the 75th anniversary of her first appearance, and paradoxically enough of a symbol of a man-made, large-breasted, scantily-clad Stars-and-Stripes pin-up to inspire protests.

But Wonder Woman is bigger than any appointment or protest. In 2016, she made it on to the big screen, with a brief appearance in Batman v. Superman, which set the stage for her starring role in the 2017 blockbuster bearing her name. As I write, her future seems secure, and so do her pseudo-Greek origins as Diana, Princess of Amazons. It’s fun, as you watch the film, to see what elements of Marston’s life are realized in Gal Godot’s hard-fighting, charmingly naïve yet multi-lingual character; both where it fits with Marston’s vision (a long opening sequence on the legendary background, bullet-proof bracelets, a sugar-crazed friend) and where it doesn’t (Germans are still baddies, but Nazis are clichés, so the time is switched to World War 1, with canvas-and-wire planes and villains too ludicrous to give offence).  

And, if you look carefully, as the credits roll you will see a small mention of Wonder Woman’s creator, William Moulton Marston.

More about the author


John Man

Since the time of the ancient Greeks we have been fascinated by accounts of the Amazons, an elusive tribe of hard-fighting, horse-riding female warriors. Equal to men in battle, legends claimed they cut off their right breasts to improve their archery skills and routinely killed their male children to purify their ranks.

For centuries people believed in their existence and attempted to trace their origins. Artists and poets celebrated their battles and wrote of Amazonia. Spanish explorers, carrying these tales to South America, thought they lived in the forests of the world’s greatest river, and named it after them.

In the absence of evidence, we eventually reasoned away their existence, concluding that these powerful, sexually liberated female soldiers must have been the fantastical invention of Greek myth and storytelling. Until now.

Following decades of new research and a series of groundbreaking archeological discoveries, we now know these powerful warrior queens did indeed exist. In Amazons, John Man travels to the grasslands of Central Asia, from the edge of the ancient Greek world to the borderlands of China, to discover the truth about the warrior women mythologized as Amazons.

In this deeply researched, sweeping historical epic, Man redefines our understanding of the Amazons and their culture, tracking the ancient legend into the modern world and examining its significance today.

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