It’s certainly been Wonder Woman’s year and not just because of the summer’s blockbuster or the fact that every other woman and little girl will be wearing those golden cuffs for Halloween. This month we’ll get to see the film, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women starring Luke Evans, which tells the story of the original comic’s creator. And it’s pretty insane. The 2014 book The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore was the first to delve into the life of Professor William Moulton Marston who created the comics under the pseudonym Charles Moulton.
Marston was a psychology professor who lived in the first half of the 1900s and was never really lauded for his contributions to academia. He had a degree from Harvard and is credited as one of the inventors behind the polygraph or lie-detector test (get it, like Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth?). That’s the boring stuff though. He was also into BDSM, wrote to defend all types of ‘abnormal’ sexuality and lived with both his wife and his mistress.
While Marston was teaching, he began an affair with a student, Olive Byrne. Although he was married, he was fascinated with her and eventually, told his wife, Elizabeth Holloway, that he would leave her if she didn’t accept the affair. The three took up house as an unofficial polygamous family unit. Holloway threw herself into her career and became a senior editor at Encyclopedia Britannica and Byrne raised the children and ran the house. Both women had two children by Marston (Holloway even named her daughter Olive after her husband’s mistress). The family avoided scrutiny and judgement from neighbours by claiming Byrne was Holloway’s widowed sister.
Despite the weird arrangement, Marston was a dedicated feminist (though some of his ideas don’t quite hit the mark). He honestly believed that women were superior to men and said that the problem with comics was their ‘bloodcurdling masculinity.’ Wonder Woman’s iconic feminist status was largely influenced by the two women in Marston’s life who were both highly educated and opinionated. Byrne was crucial in particular because she was influenced greatly by her aunt, Margaret Sanger–birth control activist and feminist writer. Unfortunately, when Marston died in 1947, the Wonder Woman comics lost the feminist themes he wrote into them.
The skimpy outfit was part of his creation though. Marston believed that the ‘ideal woman’ was both dominant and submissive–we said some of his ideas didn’t hit the mark. He was a complex guy and liked equally the pin-up archetype and the strong woman. That’s why Wonder Woman is strong and fierce while also frequently bonded in chains or ropes. It’s symbolic of the patriarchy, but also has some serious sexual undertones.
If the life of William Marston seems wildly fascinating to you–how couldn’t it?–the movie hits theaters this week.