The Secret History of Wonder Woman

The Secret History of Wonder Woman

Superman has super speed and super strength. Batman has his utility belt and his ingenuity. And Wonder Woman? Along with Amazonian strength, she has a whip (a golden lasso) and manacles (gold cuff bracelets) – the classic tools of dominance and submission. When she lassoes someone with her whip, or someone grabs it and lassoes her, the captive must obey or tell the truth. As for her bracelets, when they're on her wrists she can playfully deflect bullets. But if she loses them, she goes into a violent rage. And if a man manages to chain her with them, she becomes putty in his hands.

Suffering Sappho! And Great Hera! How amazing that such a thinly veiled S&M fantasy found its way into the hands of millions of children in the early 1940s. (Only Batman and Superman were more popular.) In page after page Wonder Woman was tied, chained, manacled, or gagged. And indeed, the bonds in Wonder Woman were so realistic and exact that some readers were moved to write in: “Have you the same interest in bonds and fetters that I have?” Where can one obtain “the leather mask, or the wide iron collar from Tibet, or the Greek ankle manacle?” This freaky fun lasted about four years, first in comic book form (All-Star Comics #8 and Sensation Comics #1) and next as a daily strip (see Wonder Woman: The Complete Dailies, 1944-1945). And then Wonder Woman, though she continued to exist, lost her kink.

Jill Lepore's fascinating new book, The Secret History of Wonder Woman, tells the outlandish story of William Moulton Marston (1893-1947), the huckster and polymath (inventor, lawyer, psychologist, filmmaker, writer) with three Harvard degrees who created the first feminist superhero and, even more impressively, managed to pass her off as just another superhero: “As lovely as Aphrodite – as wise as Athena – with the speed of Mercury and the strength of Hercules – she is known only as a Wonder Woman, but who she is, or whence she came, nobody knows!” Well, thanks to Lepore, now we know: she came from the fevered brain and life of Marston.

Lepore makes the case that Wonder Woman, which began in the early 1940s, is feminism's “missing link,” a vital connector in a “chain of events that begins with the woman suffrage campaigns of the 1910s and ends with the troubled place of feminism fully a century later” (yes, there's still no Equal Rights Amendment!). But what really sticks in the mind is how tightly bound this feminist superhero and her creator were with the art of bondage and submission. Marston, a walking talking contradiction, battled for women's liberation while conducting scientific studies to prove that women enjoyed bondage and beating other women with sticks. He declared that any woman could have it all, but it was he who had two or three women at the same time – one to support him and his family (Sadie Holloway), one to raise his children and write gushing reviews of his psychological work (Olive Byrne), and one to take care of the incense burning and the “love binding” in the attic (Marjorie Huntley).

How did such a man come to be? An only child raised mostly by women, Marston had his political awakening at Harvard in the heat of the suffrage movement, amid the “sufs” and the “antis.” His first hero, the British suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst, knew something about the power of bondage: in 1908, she chained herself to the railing at 10 Downing Street, brilliantly reversing the way illustrators usually depicted suffragists – breaking free from chains and manacles. Pankhurst wasn't the only one who understood the usefulness of public bondage. Years later, Margaret Sanger, the mother of modern birth control and (as it happens) another of Marston's models for Wonder Woman, gagged herself to dramatize the fact that she had been forbidden to speak at a meeting. “I see immense advantages in being gagged,” Sanger said. “It silences me but it makes millions of others talk.” Marston, it seems, took note. Gags can be good.

Although Lepore doesn't say so, Marston's first unofficial professor of the art of bondage was Hugo Münsterberg, a German psychologist (and a notable sexist: he believed that the only reason to educate women was “to make them more interesting wives”). Hired by William James to start the experimental psychology department at Harvard, Münsterberg (who became Dr. Psycho in Wonder Woman), who comes off as a crazed German scientist, was fond of strapping Radcliffe women like Gertrude Stein to machines to watch how their vital signs changed as they thought thoughts or felt feelings. While working with Münsterberg, Marston, then a Harvard undergrad, hit on the idea of strapping subjects to a blood pressure machine to test whether they were lying. (Their baseline blood pressure was gotten while they read William James's Pragmatism.) Thirty years later, Wonder Woman would use her famous lasso to make her subjects tell the truth. The lie detector, Marston's most important invention next to Wonder Woman, you see, was just another tool in his bondage kit.

But there was more to Marston than mere bondage and submission. He was, it seems, a genuine feminist with a particular interest in women's erotic rights. His first fellow traveler on this path was his childhood sweetheart Sadie Holloway, a Sappho-loving tomboy from the Isle of Man who went to Mt. Holyoke while Marston was at Harvard. She believed, as Marston did, that women's emancipation must include (as Sanger wrote) “freeing herself from the chains of her own reproductivity” and so freeing her “feminine spirit,” her sexual power, her love force. She also believed women could and should do everything men that men do. Thus, although Holloway gave up her name when she married Marston (“we are stuck with either our father's name or our husband's” anyway, she once remarked), she had no intention of giving up her job as an editor at Encyclopedia Britannica to raise kids. The question was how to have it all.

Holloway's answer came in the form of a rival, a young, chic, androgynous woman named Olive Byrne who was Marston's student at Tufts and who also happened to be Margaret Sanger's niece. Byrne became Marston's research assistant in his studies of how women react to being bound and to beating other women. The experiment, done in the 1920s, involved a “Baby Party,” a ritual hazing at Byrne's sorority at Tufts: the freshmen co-eds dressed like babies and were captured by sophomore co-eds who hit them with sticks. According to Byrne and Marston, they all loved it.

Not long after the Baby Party study, Marston gave his wife, whom he called Keets or Keetsie (for Cutie) an ultimatum: let Olive Byrne move in or else leave. After a six-hour walk, Holloway opened the door and Olive moved in. It turned out she was the answer to Holloway's “having it all” problem. Holloway got pregnant, had the baby in 1928, and went back to work, the way men do. Byrne raised Holloway's child, then had two children herself by Marston. Finally, Holloway, at the age of 40, had another baby, (named Olive), also raised by Byrne. (By the way, this domestic arrangement wasn't just a matter of convenience; Holloway and Byrne remained devoted to each other and continued to live together long after Marston died.) Meanwhile, a third woman often lived in the house, Marjorie Wilkes Huntley, a suffragist who believed in “love binding.” (She, Marston, and Holloway had already been a “threesome” around 1919, before Olive Byrne's arrival.)

This unconventional living situation – one man, four children (partly related) two or three women (involved with one another and with Marston) – was hidden from everyone, including the kids (though each child knew which mother was whose). Somehow Byrne managed to hide the fact that Marston was her children's father by making up an imaginary father for them, one who had died shortly after her sons were born. She even changed her name (to Olive Richard) and made up a wedding date. Around the Marsten house, Olive's nickname was Dots or Dotsie (short for Docile) and she always wore manacle-style bracelets (the model for Wonder Woman's cuffs). But to outsiders she was simply a sister-in-law or a housekeeper.

These deceptions were grand, maybe even fun. While Marston, the man of the house, was, as Lepore puts it, busy “sliding down the academic ladder” rung by rung, from one part-time gig to another (he did everything from testing movie plots for Universal Studios to flacking Gillette Razor blades) Olive Byrne began writing wholesome articles for Family Circle about women, family life, and children, and she almost always included an interview with a great and wonderful psychologist named Dr. Marston, not letting on that she knew him rather well. At one point, for instance, she interviewed him about how far a girl should go with a man before marriage. He responded as a father (not mentioning that his interviewer was the mother of half his kids): “Well first the girl should understand how far there is to go, and the consequences of each step. Then she must decide … at what point she must stop to keep him from thinking she's submitting to him.”

In the course of one of these playful and fraudulent Family Circle promotions, Byrne touted Marston's view that comic strips were helpful to children (“pure wish fulfillment”). The article happened to catch the eye of Charlie Gaines, the head of Detective Comics, publisher of Superman and Batman. Soon Marston was hired as a consultant for DC, then as a writer. And so, just as the United States entered World War II, Wonder Woman was born. The artist, approved by Marston, was Harry G. Peter. And Marston, the author, became Charles Moulton.

What was Wonder Woman like? Dressed in a kind of all-American swimsuit and coiffed like a Vargas Girl, Wonder Woman (whose real name was Princess Diana) was an Amazon. Like Marston, she had a passion for women's rights and lie detection. Like Olive, she wore cuff bracelets and was a superfast typist. Like Holloway, she got bored when she couldn't work. Like Margaret Sanger, she knew the power of bondage and helped out during workers' strikes. And like all of the Marston clan, she had many identities (Princess Diana, Diana Prince). In other words, almost every detail of Wonder Woman originated in the life of Marston.

But the story of her origins, writes Lepore, came straight from feminist utopian fiction of the 1910s, particularly Inez Haynes Gillmore's Angel Island, a novel in which five American men are shipwrecked on an island “inhabited by 'super-humanly beautiful' women with wings.” The men, as Lepore outlines the plot, are “overcome with desire, capture the women, tie them up, and cut off their wings. … Eventually, the strongest of them leads the other women in waging a revolution.”

A similar history is told by Hippolyte (Wonder Woman's mother) in the introductory panels of Wonder Woman: “In the Days of Ancient Greece, many centuries ago, we Amazons were the foremost nation in the world … Then one day, Hercules, the strongest man in the world ... landed on our shores. I challenged him to personal combat – because I knew that with my MAGIC GIRDLE, given to me by Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, I could not lose.” Sure enough, Hippolyte defeated Hercules, but then somehow he got hold of the magic girdle and thus the Amazons, bound in shackles, became slaves to men in Greece. Finally when they escaped, they settled on Paradise Island, a land without men, “For it was Aphrodite's condition that we … establish a new world of our own! … [and] we must always wear these bracelets fashioned by our captors, as a reminder that we must always keep aloof from men.”

In the pages of Wonder Woman Marston's games of bondage and submission could at last be played out in public. Not surprisingly, he kept a tight rein on things, two in particular. One was the feminism of the plot. “Let that theme alone,” Marston said to his editor, “or drop the project.” And the second thing was the look of bondage. For one installment, he instructed the artist: “Do some careful chaining here … Put a metal collar on WW with a chain running off from the panel, as though she were chained in the line of prisoners. Have her hands clasped together at her breast with double band on her wrists ... At her ankles show a pair of arms and hands, coming from out of the panel, clasping about her ankles. The whole panel will lose its point and spoil the story unless these chains are drawn exactly as described here.” Whew.

It's not as if no one noticed the kinkiness. The editor of Wonder Woman, Sheldon Mayer said, “Marston's idea of feminine supremacy was the ability to submit to male domination.” Josette Frank, the staff adviser to the Children's Book Committee of the Child Study Association of America, was troubled by the “sadistic bits showing women chained, tortured, etc.” Dorothy Roubicek, DC's first female editor, objected to the idea in Wonder Woman that “women enjoy submission.” And finally, in 1945, Walter J. Ong, a Jesuit priest, noted that both Superman and Wonder Woman shared quite a lot with the Third Reich, including a fascination with paganism and totalitarianism.

Somehow, though, in spite of all this, Wonder Woman managed to survive, although somewhat weakened and definitely domesticated, until finally, in 1947, weakened by polio, Marston, her creator, died. And so, in a sense, did Wonder Woman.

By the 1950s, Wonder Woman – the wildest of superheroes, the woman who would lose everything if she ever married, the Amazonian princess who once brought peace and love to America with her manacle bracelets and her whip – was reduced, as Lepore writes, to “a secretary in a swimsuit.” She was by turns a babysitter, a fashion model, and a movie star. She gave advice to the lovesick. She wanted desperately to marry. Freed from her fetters, Wonder Woman lost her will to power, her very mojo. She traded in her real chains for the manacles of conformity. Would Wonder Woman ever be able to free herself from those chains? Only the goddess Aphrodite knows for sure.