Wonder Woman: Nearly 80 and still blazing a trail

Wonder Woman will turn 80 years old next year and yet she is as relevant today as she was for her audience back in 1941.

Resourceful, brave, and ahead of her time, Wonder Woman is not one to let bullets, Nazis, or traditional cultural standards for women hold her down or limit her ability to stand up for justice and the welfare of others. She is an enduring role model for us all.

Originated by a free-thinking, Harvard-educated psychologist who believed in the educational potential of comic books, Wonder Woman was brought to life. Patriotic and smart, she forged her own path in a man’s world. Feminists embraced her and lobbied for her. And she can hold her own at the box office in action films — not that we should ever have had any doubt.

Wonder Woman made her first appearance in All Star Comics #8 in December 1941. While she quickly became the best known, she was not the first female superhero. Timely Comics had introduced Black Widow (1940) and Fawcett Comics had introduced Bulletgirl (1940). It is Wonder Woman though who took hold and rocketed to success.

The first superhero story appeared in 1938 with the introduction of Superman by DC Comics. This new character archetype proved popular and other superhero characters quickly followed. DC Comics introduced Batman in 1939, as well as The Flash and Green Lantern in 1940. Over at Marvel Comics (at that time known as Timely Publications), the Human Torch (1939) and Captain America (1941) appeared on the scene. Captain Marvel (1940) led the pack at Fawcett Comics. With such a line up of dominant male superheroes, DC Comics noticed the absence of a counterbalance — what it needed was a woman.

It was 1941. America had emerged from the Depression of the 1930's only to stand on the brink of World War I. To have such a liberated, feminist role model as Wonder Woman emerge at this point in time is quite remarkable. Where did such a character come from? Who imagined this character and got her into print? The answer lies in William Moulton Marston.

Marston was born in Massachusetts in 1893. He received a Harvard education and went on to become a professor of Psychology. He also wrote many articles in popular psychology. Adding to his talents, Marston was an inventor as well. One of his interests was lie detection and the body’s response to telling lies. Marston is credited with developing the systolic blood pressure test that could be used as a way to detect deception. This later became one component of the modern polygraph. There is speculation that Marston’s work in the area of lie detection gave him the inspiration for Wonder Woman’s magic lasso, which when encircling an enemy could force him to speak the truth.

In an October 25, 1940 interview entitled “Don’t Laugh at the Comics” published in Family Circle, Marston discussed what he saw as the educational potential of comic books. Comic book publisher Maxwell Charles Gaines saw this article and was intrigued. He hired Marston on as an educational consultant for National Periodicals and All-American Publications, two of the companies that would later merge and become DC Comics. It was this relationship between Marston and Gaines that set the stage for Wonder Woman.

Marston was passionate about the ability of comic books to educate and mold their readers. Here was a venue to reach children and society with important messages. In a time before the internet, before Facebook, and for most people even before television, Marston saw the potential for comic books to share social messages and influence thinking. One of those messages to Marston was recognition of the strength of women and the healing power of love, which Marston believed can only come when both women and men are allowed to make free choices.

Marston himself was very familiar with liberated women. The first such woman in his life was his wife, Elizabeth “Sadie” Holloway Marston, who like Marston was born in 1893. Elizabeth was a psychologist at a time when it was difficult for a woman to pursue a career. And at a time when it was unusual for women to earn higher degrees, she earned three. Her first was a B.A. in Psychology (1915) from Mount Holyoke College. When her father refused to pay for her to go to law school, Elizabeth sold cookbooks to the local ladies clubs, earning the $100 she needed to pay her tuition. While she wanted to join her fiancé, William Marston, at Harvard Law School, Harvard did not admit women at the time. Instead she enrolled in Boston University School of Law earning an L.L.B (1918). She was bright, passionate in her desire for knowledge, and unconventional for her times.

While William Marston was pursuing his dissertation concerning the correlation between blood pressure levels and deception, Elizabeth worked with him. She assisted him and contributed to his efforts. William earned his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1921, the same year Elizabeth received an M.A. in Psychology from Radcliffe College.

After having her first child at age thirty-five, Elizabeth continued to work. This was revolutionary for the time. In 1933 Elizabeth became the assistant to the chief executive at Metropolitan Life Insurance, where she worked until she was 65 years old.

But Elizabeth was not the only liberated woman that William Marston knew. Olive Byrne, a former student and research assistant, moved in with William and Elizabeth in the late 1920s. She lived with the couple in a polyamorous relationship. Elizabeth bore William two children and Olive gave birth to two. The Marstons legally adopted Olive’s two children. Olive stayed home to raise the children while Elizabeth worked to support the family. Following William’s death from cancer in 1947, the women stayed together. Elizabeth financed the college and graduate education of her two children as well as Olive’s two children. She also supported Olive until Olive’s death in the late 1980s. William Marston’s relationship with these two bright, liberated women would impact his views on the role and power of women, and influence the development of the character of Wonder Woman.

As to the inspiration for Wonder Woman, we find some evidence in an article published in 1942. Family Circle published a follow on article to its 1940 “Don’t Laugh at the Comics”. In this follow-on article, appearing in Family Circle in August 14, 1942, Olive Byrne (writing under the name Olive Richard) interviewed William Marston. Byrne writes that Marston greeted her by saying:

Hello, hello, my Wonder Woman! I was just reading about you in this magazine. You’re prettier than your prototype in the story strip, and far more intellectual.

Later in the interview Marston tells Byrne that the pair of ancient Arab “protective” bracelets that Byrne had worn for years was the original inspiration for Wonder Woman’s Amazon chain bands.

While Wonder Woman may owe many of her physical attributes to Byrne, she owes much in terms of her intelligence and will, and in fact her very creation, to Elizabeth Marston. Elizabeth Marston’s obituary states that she was the inspiration for Wonder Woman. A 1992 New York Times article published a year before Elizabeth Marston’s death revealed:

One dark night as the clouds of war hovered over Europe again, Mr. Marston consulted his wife and collaborator, also a psychologist. He was inventing somebody like that new Superman fellow, only his character would promote a global psychic revolution by forsaking Biff! Bam! and Ka-Runch! for The Power of Love. Well, said Mrs. Marston, who was born liberated, this super-hero had better be a woman […]

Marston envisioned a new type of superhero, one that triumphs not with fists and bravado, but through the power of love. Marston wrote in a 1943 issue of Phi Beta Kappa’s The American Scholar:

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.

Having conceptualized the character of Wonder Woman, Marston introduced his idea to comic book publisher Max Gaines, with whom Marston was working as an educational consultant. Gaines bought into the idea. Originally called “Suprema” by Marston, editor Sheldon Mayer replaced the name “Suprema” with “Wonder Woman”. Wonder Woman made her debut in December 1941 in All Star Comics #8. By summer of 1942, she had her own book, Wonder Woman #1.

Wonder Woman has been published by DC Comics almost continuously except for a short period in 1986. She has also regularly appeared in comic books as part of the Justice Society and the Justice League. Writers have given her various powers, as well as taken them away. Story settings have fluctuated between the WWII era and current times.

Following Marston’s death in 1947, Robert Kanigher took the helm as writer. During the forties and into the mid-fifties, or what is called the Golden Age in comics, Wonder Woman fought the Axis military forces in addition other villains. Her powers were increased and she was given new weapons and gadgets, including her Invisible Plane.

The Silver Age, which began in the mid-fifties, saw Wonder Woman undergo many changes. The most dramatic of these changes occurred in the late sixties when Wonder Woman surrendered her powers to remain in “Man’s World.” She dressed as a mod and opened a mod clothing boutique. She took on a mentor, I Ching, and studied the martial arts. Wonder Woman’s loss of powers was bemoaned in the early seventies by the legions of women and men who still believed in her and wanted her restored to her former glory.

There are many that consider Wonder Woman to be a feminist icon. Certainly Marston himself created Wonder Woman as a role model for the strong, liberated woman. Fortunately she could count Gloria Steinem as a believer, an advocate, and a defender.

In an introduction to Wonder Woman, a Ms. Book published in 1972, Gloria Steinem reflected on the character:

Looking back now at these Wonder Woman stories from the forties,I am amazed by the strength of their feminist message…Wonder Woman symbolizes many of the values of the women’s culture that Feminists are now trying to introduce into the mainstream.

The inaugural issue of Ms. Magazine in 1972 featured Wonder Woman on the cover with the tagline, “Wonder Woman for President.”

It was Ms. magazine that lobbied to have Wonder Woman’s powers returned to her. The campaign was successful and Wonder Woman regained her powers in 1973. Rather than stories of romance and bondage, the storylines reverted to fighting villains and injustice. They became more action-oriented and action-packed.

The seventies also found Wonder Woman as the star of her own TV series with Lynda Carter in the title role. First airing on ABC television as The New Original Wonder Woman, the series later moved to CBS as The New Adventures of Wonder Woman. The show aired for three seasons from 1975–1979. Strong, intelligent, beautiful, and with a knockout costume designed by Hollywood designer Donfeld, Wonder Woman lit up the small screen.

While the show prospered for a period, the comic book series continued a downward spiral. Beset by constant changes in direction, the comic book lost its focus and diverged greatly from the ideals set by Marston. Hitting its lowest point, DC Comics decided to give Wonder Woman a brief hiatus in 1986, re-launching a brand new series in 1987 with the help of Gloria Steinem. With new numbering, a new look, and a new writer and illustrator, George Perez, Wonder Woman returned to her roots, fighting injustice and promoting a society of love and peace.

Wonder Woman has appeared in numerous books as well as animated shows and film. She has also appeared as both playable and non-playable characters in various video games. She is enduringly popular and is a character that has withstood the test of time.

Our most recent incarnation of Wonder Woman is played by Gal Gadot. After appearing in the role of Wonder Woman in the 2016 film Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Gadot was ready to reprise her role for the 2017 Wonder Woman feature film. Directed by Patty Jenkins, the film stands as one of the highest grossing films directed by a woman. The sequel, Wonder Woman 1984, is tentatively pending release this fall due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some see Wonder Woman as a counter or a balance to the emerging male superheros in the mid-twentieth century. Others see her as a feminist and symbol of the women’s rights movement. To me, a kid in the seventies in a small suburb of Baltimore, I just knew that Wonder Woman was something special. She was smart. She was strong. (And her jewelry could convert into amazing weapons!) She was every bit the equal of Superman or of Batman, but without all of the parental issues, weakness to Kryptonite, or need for a masked identity.

We have certainly not come as quickly nor as far in terms of realizing the liberated, love-governed society that William Marston envisioned. The racial unrest in our country and the world attest to that. But I think Marston would be proud to see the enduring popularity of Wonder Woman. Generations of readers have been educated through comic books and have grown up with Wonder Woman as a role model.

There are many lessons that I learned from Wonder Woman as a little girl. Those are lessons that I still remember today. And when I am 80, I can only hope that Wonder Woman will still be blazing the trail — empowering and inspiring the next generation.

Mary O’Connell is a professional with 25+ years of work experience in public and private companies, for-profits and not-for-profits, global and domestic.

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