Wonder Woman: The Super Secret & Kinky Origin of a Feminist Icon

I have a tremendous fascination with the history of pop culture icons, particularly superheroes. I don’t mean the origin story, I mean where the character came from. What drove the writer, and how the character was different from what they are today. The origin of the character Wonder Woman is by far one of the oddest and most intriguing stories I have ever encountered. This post is a long one, but I truly think you will find it interesting regardless of whether you read comics (it’s filled with stories of sexual deviance).

Wonder Woman hit newsstands in 1941 and was a different kind of superhero created by a different kind of writer. Her creator was William Moulton Marston, a middle-aged WASP who studied law and psychology at Harvard. He was one of the few early comic creators who was older, well educated, and not Jewish. Marston studied the correlation between blood pressure and emotional distress as a graduate student and played a critical role in the development of the polygraph machine, or lie detector. After earning his PhD in psychology from Harvard in 1921, he took a job at Tufts University where he continued his research in psychology (Jones 205-6).

Along with his graduate research assistant, Olive Byrne, Marston began studying human emotion, persuasion, and power. His studies focused largely on sexual deviance. One such act that he observed was a bizarre sorority initiation at a women’s college, known as a “baby party.” Marston observed, “new pledges dressed like babies and were tied up, poked with sticks, and wrestled into submission by other girls.” Marston did not just observe sexual deviance, he was a sexual deviant. Marston was happily married to a strong woman named Elizabeth Holloway who studied law and psychology at Boston and Radcliffe. He and his wife lived with Olive Byrne, Marston’s graduate assistant. The three of them had four children, two from Elizabeth and two from Olive. For the most part, Olive raised all of the children while Elizabeth worked to support the family. Elizabeth and Olive remained together for the rest of their lives, even after Marston died (Jones 206-7).

In 1928, Marston published the culmination of his research in his popular book titled, The Emotions of Ordinary People. In his book, Marston argued that human emotions can be broken down into four “’elementary behavioral units,’ dominance, influence, steadiness, and compliance. It was an easily applicable look at the social power games of daily life, and if there was any doubt that he intended it to make him a popular pundit rather than a respected researcher, he even gave his system an acronym: DISC.” This was popular among average people in the late 20’s, but effectively ended Marston’s professional career. As a result, Marston spent the following decade traveling the country using DISC and the lie detector to find jobs. At one point he was depicted in “magazine ads selling Gillette razors (a lie detector test showed that men really thought Gillette shaved closest)” (Jones 206-7). Perhaps the oddest part of all of this is that even though DISC obliterated Marston’s professional career, it is still used today all across the country.

Marston became interested in comic books by way of his relationship with comic publisher Max Gains, who he convinced that a strong female superhero would appeal to both boys and girls (Wright 21).

Marston told Trina Robbins of The American Scholar in 1943:

It seemed to me, from a psychological angle, that the comics’ worst offense was their blood-curdling masculinity… It’s smart to be strong. It’s big to be generous, but it’s sissified, according to exclusively male rules, to be tender, loving, affectionate, and alluring. ‘Aw, that’s girl stuff!’ snorts our young comics reader, ‘Who wants to be a girl?’ And that’s the point: not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength… Women’s strong qualities have become despised because of their weak ones (Fingeroth 79).

His persuasive argument netted him the opportunity to create the first female superhero, and with Marston’s handpicked artist H.G. Peter; an artist with an unconventionally old-fashioned style, they created Diana Prince, the Wonder Woman.

Wonder Woman was essentially a female Superman. The Amazonian princess who left her home, the Amazon kingdom of Paradise Island, after rescuing and falling in love with a downed American airman named Steve Trevor in order to help fight against the evil megalomaniacal Axis forces. She was super strong, fast, intelligent, impervious to harm, and she could fly in her invisible airplane. She also wielded weapons. On her wrists, she wore manacles that could deflect bullets (Olive Byrne always wore manacles). She had a golden tiara that she could throw like a boomerang with deadly accuracy, and she also had a magical lasso that forced all who were caught in it to obey her (This later evolved to become the lasso of truth, no doubt related to Marston’s early research). She was, as Marston described, a strong, smart, generous, loving, affectionate, and alluring superheroine who would later become a feminist icon. However, Wonder Woman was far from a perfect feminist icon in her original form (Wright 21).

Wonder Woman was very different in her early adventures than she is today. When Diana Prince was not flying around in her invisible jet wearing red, white, blue, and gold, battling the forces of evil, she was a secretary. For a few issues during the war, she became a nurse to help the war effort. Wonder Woman also had one shocking weakness, which she does not have today; she lost all of her powers when her hands were bound together.

Image from the first page of “Sensational Comics” Number 4 written by Marston and illustrated by Peters.
Image from the first page of “Sensational Comics” Number 4 written by Marston and illustrated by Peters.

The Wonder Woman comics penned by Marston were packed with bondage, spankings, enslavement, and punishment of both men and women. Every single Wonder Woman comic that Marston created depicted bondage and a myriad of other sexual fetishes (Jones 209). While Wonder Woman was at a basic level, a super-heroic icon for young girls, it was not until many decades later, when the Wonder Woman TV show started airing, that Marston’s intent was fully realized.

Wonder Woman did sell better than most superhero comics to young girls, however, 90% of all comics starring the Amazon Princess that were sold, were purchased by males. A fact that was not overlooked by advertisers who routinely targeted young boys with the ads in Wonder Woman comics, most notably, BB gun ads that read “Hey Fellers, tell Dad to buy you a BB Gun” (Jones 211).

These initial Wonder Woman comics served to reinforce the status quo for many women, living their lives subservient in a man’s world. The simple fact that Diana Prince, this omnipotent force for good, was no more powerful in her daily life than most other woman underscored how underpowered women were. Marston’s own wife was a lawyer, but for some reason, he did not give his iconic female hero a high-powered job.

Since Marston was removed from the title in 1949, Wonder Woman’s occupation has changed a number of times; currently, she is a federal agent of sorts. Her sexist weakness was also removed along with all of the other fetishes (except for the costume) that were the hallmark of Marston’s run on the title.

(Note from 2014: My link-baity title notwithstanding, I was not making judgments with this post. It was observational, and derived from my college honors thesis. To all of the people on Tumblr who are using this post as evidence to attack the idea that Wonder Woman is/was a feminist icon, I strongly submit that she is, and she was a feminist icon. I also don’t care what went on in Marston’s bedroom, but it is interesting in the context of the history of his creation. Sexual expression shouldn’t have a thing to do with politics. Finally I think that Marston was a mess as an academic, and his grasp of writing for a young female audience was suspect. None of that takes away from what he created, or what it grew into under the stewardship of many others.)

Works Cited

Fingeroth, Danny. Superman on the Couch: What Superheroes Really Tell Us About Ourselves and Our Society. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc., 2005.

Jones, Gerard. Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book. New York: Basic Books, 2004.

Marston, William Moulton and H.G. Peter. Wonder Woman: Archive Volume 1. New York: DC Comics, 1998.

Marston, William Moulton and H.G. Peter. Wonder Woman: Archive Volume 2. New York: DC Comics, 2000.

Wright, Bradford W. Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2003.

11 thoughts on “Wonder Woman: The Super Secret & Kinky Origin of a Feminist Icon

  1. Really appreciated the results of your research. I’ve been a WW fan since age 5 and my mom gave me the copy of the first WW comic that was stapled into Ms. Magazine. I was a little bit nervous to read your blog for fear that it would make it difficult to still think of her as a feminist icon. Whew! Sounds like Marston knew what he was doing when he created Paradise Island! Facinating!

  2. I like your research on this subject. I found it because I have been doing my own research on the origin of the term Wonder Woman. This came about from reading a book called Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. This story was originally serialized in 1915 in the magazine The Forerunner. If you haven’t read it here’s a short summary.
    It is about a group of three men that stumble upon a paradise inhabited solely by woman. They are strong intelligent and capable women with no men. Upon learning the ways of the men one of the women decides to embark on a quest to our world to see how American society is different than her own. In the last five pages of the book the narrator of the story says, “why you blessed wonder-woman.” Sound familiar?
    This was about 25 years before the creation of the superheroine Wonder Woman. The only other definition of the term that I can find on-line is: A woman capable of being a successful wife and have a professional career at the same time. I could not find a date of the first usage of the term. Any thoughts on this?

    1. Thomas, thank you for sharing your research with me. I hadn’t read about The Forerunner story. Truthfully, it never crossed my mind to investigate the origin of the name Wonder Woman.

      This only reinforces my belief that the origin of the character Wonder Woman is one of the most interesting stories I have ever encountered.

  3. WW is a man’s idea of a strong woman — she’s a semi-pornified male fantasy, nothing more. And Marston was a pig.

  4. @jwmtb – I think that is a bit of an oversimplification, and things are a bit more grey than that.

    Judging the past by today’s standards is always a messy endeavor. Ultimately I firmly believe that the character of Wonder Woman has done far more good for women the world over than harm. It just took a little evolution for her to get there.

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