The Surprising Origin Story of Wonder Woman

The history of the comic-book superhero’s creation seven decades ago has been hidden away—until now

As soon as Wonder Woman appeared in Sensation Comics, beginning with her cover debut in 1942, she caused a stir. "Wonder Woman is not sufficiently dressed," one bishop groused. (Dibner Library / NMAH, SI)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 1)

Gaines was troubled. Roubicek, who worked on Superman, too, had invented kryptonite. She believed superheroes ought to have vulnerabilities. She told Gaines she thought Wonder Woman ought to be more like Superman and, just as Superman couldn’t go back to the planet Krypton, Wonder Woman ought not to be able to go back to Paradise Island, where the kinkiest stuff tended to happen. Gaines then sent Roubicek to Bellevue Hospital to interview Bender. In a memo to Gaines, Roubicek reported that Bender “does not believe that Wonder Woman tends to masochism or sadism.” She also liked the way Marston was playing with feminism, Roubicek reported: “She believes that Dr. Marston is handling very cleverly this whole ‘experiment’ as she calls it. She feels that perhaps he is bringing to the public the real issue at stake in the world (and one which she feels may possibly be a direct cause of the present conflict) and that is that the difference between the sexes is not a sex problem, nor a struggle for superiority, but rather a problem of the relation of one sex to the other.” Roubicek summed up: “Dr. Bender believes that this strip should be left alone.”

Gaines was hugely relieved, at least until September 1943, when a letter arrived from John D. Jacobs, a U.S. Army staff sergeant in the 291st Infantry, stationed at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. “I am one of those odd, perhaps unfortunate men who derive an extreme erotic pleasure from the mere thought of a beautiful girl, chained or bound, or masked, or wearing extreme high-heels or high-laced boots,—in fact, any sort of constriction or strain whatsoever,” Jacobs wrote. He wanted to know whether the author of Wonder Woman himself had in his possession any of the items depicted in the stories, “the leather mask, or the wide iron collar from Tibet, or the Greek ankle manacle? Or do you just ‘dream up’ these things?”

(For the record, Marston and Olive Byrne’s son, Byrne Marston, who is an 83-year-old retired obstetrician, thinks that when Marston talked about the importance of submission, he meant it only metaphorically. “I never saw anything like that in our house,” he told me. “He didn’t tie the ladies up to the bedpost. He’d never have gotten away with it.”)

Gaines forwarded Jacobs’ letter to Marston, with a note: “This is one of the things I’ve been afraid of.” Something had to be done. He therefore enclosed, for Marston’s use, a memo written by Roubicek containing a “list of methods which can be used to keep women confined or enclosed without the use of chains. Each one of these can be varied in many ways—enabling us, as I told you in our conference last week, to cut down the use of chains by at least 50 to 75% without at all interfering with the excitement of the story or the sales of the books.”

Marston wrote Gaines right back.

“I have the good Sergeant’s letter in which he expresses his enthusiasm over chains for women—so what?” As a practicing clinical psychologist, he said, he was unimpressed. “Some day I’ll make you a list of all the items about women that different people have been known to get passionate over—women’s hair, boots, belts, silk worn by women, gloves, stockings, garters, panties, bare backs,” he promised. “You can’t have a real woman character in any form of fiction without touching off a great many readers’ erotic fancies. Which is swell, I say.”

Marston was sure he knew what line not to cross. Harmless erotic fantasies are terrific, he said. “It’s the lousy ones you have to look out for—the harmful, destructive, morbid erotic fixations—real sadism, killing, blood-letting, torturing where the pleasure is in the victim’s actual pain, etc. Those are 100 per cent bad and I won’t have any part of them.” He added, in closing, “Please thank Miss Roubicek for the list of menaces.”

In 1944, Gaines and Marston signed an agreement for Wonder Woman to become a newspaper strip, syndicated by King Features. Busy with the newspaper strip, Marston hired an 18-year-old student, Joye Hummel, to help him write comic-book scripts. Joye Hummel, now Joye Kelly, turned 90 this April; in June, she donated her collection of never-before-seen scripts and comic books to the Smithsonian Libraries. Hiring her helped with Marston’s editorial problem, too. Her stories were more innocent than his. She’d type them and bring them to Sheldon Mayer, Marston’s editor at DC, she told me, and “He always OK’d mine faster because I didn’t make mine as sexy.” To celebrate syndication, Gaines had his artists draw a panel in which Superman and Batman, rising out of the front page of a daily newspaper, call out to Wonder Woman, who’s leaping onto the page, “Welcome, Wonder Woman!”

Gaines had another kind of welcome to make, too. He asked Lauretta Bender to take Frank’s place on the editorial advisory board.

In an ad King Features ran to persuade newspapers to purchase the strip, pointing out that Wonder Woman already had “ten million loyal fans,” her name is written in rope.

Hidden behind this controversy is one reason for all those chains and ropes, which has to do with the history of the fight for women’s rights. Because Marston kept his true relationship with Olive Byrne a secret, he kept his family’s ties to Margaret Sanger a secret, too. Marston, Byrne and Holloway, and even Harry G. Peter, the artist who drew Wonder Woman, had all been powerfully influenced by the suffrage, feminism and birth control movements. And each of those movements had used chains as a centerpiece of its iconography.

In 1911, when Marston was a freshman at Harvard, the British suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst, who’d chained herself to the gates outside 10 Downing Street, came to speak on campus. When Sanger faced charges of obscenity for explaining birth control in a magazine she founded called the Woman Rebel, a petition sent to President Woodrow Wilson on her behalf read, “While men stand proudly and face the sun, boasting that they have quenched the wickedness of slavery, what chains of slavery are, have been or ever could be so intimate a horror as the shackles on every limb—on every thought—on the very soul of an unwilling pregnant woman?” American suffragists threatened to chain themselves to the gates outside the White House. In 1916, in Chicago, women representing the states where women had still not gained the right to vote marched in chains.

In the 1910s, Peter was a staff artist at the magazine Judge, where he contributed to its suffrage page called “The Modern Woman,” which ran from 1912 to 1917. More regularly, the art on that page was drawn by another staff artist, a woman named Lou Rogers. Rogers’ suffrage and feminist cartoons very often featured an allegorical woman chained or roped, breaking her bonds. Sanger hired Rogers as art director for the Birth Control Review, a magazine she started in 1917. In 1920, in a book called Woman and the New Race, Sanger argued that woman “had chained herself to her place in society and the family through the maternal functions of her nature, and only chains thus strong could have bound her to her lot as a brood animal.” In 1923, an illustration commissioned by Rogers for the cover of Birth Control Review pictured a weakened and desperate woman, fallen to her knees and chained at the ankle to a ball that reads, “UNWANTED BABIES.” A chained woman inspired the title of Sanger’s 1928 book, Motherhood in Bondage, a compilation of some of the thousands of letters she had received from women begging her for information about birth control; she described the letters as “the confessions of enslaved mothers.”
When Marston created Wonder Woman, in 1941, he drew on Sanger’s legacy and inspiration. But he was also determined to keep the influence of Sanger on Wonder Woman a secret.

He took that secret to his grave when he died in 1947. Most superheroes didn’t survive peacetime and those that did were changed forever in 1954, when a psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham published a book called Seduction of the Innocent and testified before a Senate subcommittee investigating the comics. Wertham believed that comics were corrupting American kids, and turning them into juvenile delinquents. He especially disliked Wonder Woman. Bender had written that Wonder Woman comics display “a strikingly advanced concept of femininity and masculinity” and that “women in these stories are placed on an equal footing with men and indulge in the same type of activities.” Wertham found the feminism in Wonder Woman repulsive.

“As to the ‘advanced femininity,’ what are the activities in comic books which women ‘indulge in on an equal footing with men’? They do not work. They are not homemakers. They do not bring up a family. Mother-love is entirely absent. Even when Wonder Woman adopts a girl there are Lesbian overtones,” he said. At the Senate hearings, Bender testified, too. If anything in American popular culture was bad for girls, she said, it wasn’t Wonder Woman; it was Walt Disney. “The mothers are always killed or sent to the insane asylums in Walt Disney movies,” she said. This argument fell on deaf ears.

Wertham’s papers, housed at the Library of Congress, were only opened to researchers in 2010. They suggest that Wertham’s antipathy toward Bender had less to do with the content of the comics than with professional rivalry. (Paul Schilder, Bender’s late husband, had been Wertham’s boss for many years.) Wertham’s papers contain a scrap on which he compiled a list he titled “Paid Experts of the Comic Book Industry Posing as Independent Scholars.” First on the list as the comic book industry’s number one lackey was Bender, about whom Wertham wrote: “Boasted privately of bringing up her 3 children on money from crime comic books.”

In the wake of the 1954 hearings, DC Comics removed Bender from its editorial advisory board, and the Comics Magazine Association of America adopted a new code. Under its terms, comic books could contain nothing cruel: “All scenes of horror, excessive bloodshed, gory or gruesome crimes, depravity, lust, sadism, masochism shall not be permitted.” There could be nothing kinky: “Illicit sex relations are neither to be hinted at nor portrayed. Violent love scenes as well as sexual abnormalities are unacceptable.” And there could be nothing unconventional: “The treatment of love-romance stories shall emphasize the value of the home and the sanctity of marriage.”

“Anniversary, which we forgot entirely,” Olive Byrne wrote in her secret diary in 1936. (The diary remains in family hands.) During the years when she lived with Marston and Holloway, she wore, instead of a wedding ring, a pair of bracelets. Wonder Woman wears those same cuffs. Byrne died in 1990, at the age of 86. She and Holloway had been living together in an apartment in Tampa. While Byrne was in the hospital, dying, Holloway fell and broke her hip; she was admitted to the same hospital. They were in separate rooms. They’d lived together for 64 years. When Holloway, in her hospital bed, was told that Byrne had died, she sang a poem by Tennyson: “Sunset and the evening star, / And one clear call for me! / And may there be no moaning of the bar, / When I put out to sea.” No newspaper ran an obituary.

Elizabeth Holloway Marston died in 1993. An obituary ran in the New York Times. It was headed, “Elizabeth H. Marston, Inspiration for Wonder Woman, 100.” This was, at best, a half-truth.

Tags

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus