In a 1943 issue of The American Scholar, a psychologist-slash-lawyer-slash-inventor named William Moulton Marston wrote:
Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power. Not wanting to be girls, they don’t want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are. Women’s strong qualities have become despised because of their weakness. The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.
Marston was a Harvard grad with phD in psychology, which is impressive, but it’s not as impressive as the scholastic achievements of the woman he would marry: Elizabeth “Sadie” Holloway. As Elizabeth’s own alma mater, Boston University would later put it: “In an era where few women earned higher degrees, Elizabeth earned three.”
She was, to quote The New York Times on the eve of her ninety-ninth birthday “born liberated.”
William and Elizabeth were a voraciously curious couple, who spent their entire life together decades ahead of their time. When Elizabeth noticed her temperature rose whenever she got angry or excited, the two began studying the effect of emotions on the body. This led to William writing a dissertation on the connections between blood levels and deception, which inspired them to invent what they called a “systolic blood-pressure test.” A few years later, this device was modified and given a new name: the polygraph.
During this research, William became convinced that women were more honest than men. He believed they were more efficient and even more accurate in their work. He believed that the masculine idea of freedom was inherently violent, while the female idea of freedom—which he called “the love allure”—was based on loving submission. Of course, the idea of the feminine ideal being submissive means that the Marstons weren’t exactly prototypes for third-wave feminism, but it’s important to remember that they saw this “love allure” as being the ideal for men and women. In other words, William believed, if men really wanted to save the world, they’d better learn to act more like women.
It wasn’t until 1940 in an interview conducted by Olive Byrne (Olive Byrne—remember that name), William said that he saw “great educational potential” in the then-new medium of comic books. That interview made it to the desk of a comics publisher named Max Gaines, who was looking for his own version of Superman and Batman. He reached out to William and asked him if he’d be interested in creating his own comic book character. He was, but he wanted something different than the brawny, brutish, brawling Batman and Superman. Remember, he believed that love was real power, and that a true superhero would need more than muscle to succeed. “Fine,” Elizabeth said. “But make her a woman.”
So they did. Like Superman, their character had a star-spangled costume, with a sensible skirt. Like Batman, she wielded a number of high tech gadgets, including an invisible airplane. She had invincible bracelets, a tiara she could throw into villains’ faces and finally—fitting for the creation of the polygraph’s forerunners—a magical lasso that forced evildoers to tell the truth and, often in doing so, reflect upon the error of their ways.
It took a couple as far out as the Marstons to create the first female superhero, but even all this doesn’t really create a picture of just how far out Wonder Woman really was. As William would later write “Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.”
Wonder Woman was an extremely popular character, but to put it simply, there was a lot going on in William’s early writings that went well over the heads of the comic book’s children readers—probably for the best. William’s belief in submission as a key element of the human experience worked itself into his Wonder Woman stories regularly, and not always in the most progressive of ways. In the same way that Superman’s weakness was kryptonite, Wonder Woman’s weakness was being tied up. But instead of making her weak, bondage would make her submissive and obedient.
This happened a lot in early Wonder Woman comics, and while our hero would inevitably escape, the motif took on an interesting dimension if you knew that William had a bondage fetish. And actually, a lot of people did know. It was well-publicized, as was the fact that Olive Byrne—that woman who interviewed William about the great educational potential of comics books—eventually moved in with the Marstons as their third partner. Something else not lost on people who’ve studied the history of Wonder Woman is that Olive had a thing for wearing large, golden bracelets.
The Marstons’ avant-garde views on gender and sexuality regularly worked its way into Wonder Woman’s stories. Often times, this led to a more empowering, progressive view of women. Wonder Woman was romantically attached to a World War II Intelligence Officer named Steve Trevor who, in a nearly unheard of flip of social norms, regularly needed saving. But in other ways, Wonder Woman was still very much a product of her time’s views of women. When she finally joined the Justice Society of America—the precursor to the Justice League—it was as the team secretary.
Like most other superheroes, Wonder Woman’s popularity declined rapidly after World War II, and only started to come back after Marvel rejuvenated the superhero genre with the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man in the ‘60s. It was during this time that Wonder Woman’s origins were overhauled by a writer named Robert Kanigher, who was much more interested in casting Wonder Woman as Princess Diana, an Amazonian warrior who’d been blessed at birth to become “beautiful as Aphrodite, wise as Athena, strong as Hercules and as swift as Hermes.” The comics were drawn by a first generation American named Russ Andru, who would go on to co-create The Punisher at Marvel.
In 1968, DC Comics made a legendarily clumsy first attempt towards a growing new wave of feminism by, counter-intuitively, deciding to completely de-power Wonder Woman. In this story, the rest of Diana’s Amazonian family were forced to move to a different dimension, but Diana herself chose to stay behind on earth. As a consequence, she loses her powers and, for some reason, her costume. As written and drawn by Mike Sekowski, Wonder Woman dropped her superhero name altogether. She was just Diana Prince, a modern woman in the big city who ran a mod-clothing boutique and knew karate.
The idea was that all this would make Wonder Woman seem more modern for the women’s lib movement, but prominent feminists kind of hated it. No less a leader of the women’s lib movement than Gloria Steinem—who had previously been an avowed fan of the character—criticized the move, saying Diana Prince was “a female James Bond, although much more boring, because she was denied his sexual freedom.” Eventually, DC agreed, and gave Diana her powers and costume back.
But all this was far from the last or even biggest innovation Wonder Woman would ever get.
In 1975, the short-lived but fondly remembered Wonder Woman TV show launched, starring Miss World America 1972 Lynda Carter as Diana Prince. Although Carter’s career never took off, her performance garnered strong reviews and the show was a modest hit—a reminder that it’s not as hard to create a successful female superhero show as Hollywood would have you believe.
Over in the comics, 1985 would mark the beginning of a DC miniseries called “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” which rewrote the origins of most of its superheroes. For Wonder Woman’s part, her origin was considerably revamped—bringing her even more in line with ancient Greek mythology—and her characterization was overhauled too. No longer the sweet emissary of love Marston had envisioned, Diana was now a seasoned, battle-ready warrior—more like Marvel’s Thor than anything else. Unlike Batman and Superman, she wasn’t opposed to killing when the circumstances called for it—in a later storyline, she would kill the god Ares in battle and claim his role as the God of War. But also unlike Batman and Superman, she saw herself as an ambassador of peace. She was less idealistic than Superman, but more optimistic than Batman. In many ways, she was the perfect counterbalance of her two equally iconic male counterparts. So, maybe she wasn’t all that different from the woman William and Elizabeth had originally envisioned after all.
Comic book fans refer to Wonder Woman, Batman and Superman as DC’s “Trinity,” and while she’s certainly earned her place alongside DC’s icons, her origins and powers are not as well known. Most people know the story of Batman’s murdered parents and Superman’s journey from Krypton, but few could tell you how Wonder Woman came to be. There are a few reasons for this, but a big one is how much that story has changed over time. The truth is, the perception of women has changed so much since 1940 that while characters like Batman and Superman have been able to remain more or less the same, Wonder Woman has evolved and grown. She ditched the invisible plane, and tying her up no longer makes her submit—it’s doubtful anyone even could tie her up these days—but more importantly, she’s been around long enough to outgrow her role as being the token female. She’s a legend now.
This is excerpted Episode 08 of It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s a Podcast, part of the Gradient Podcast Network. Listen to the whole thing here.