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)
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“Noted Psychologist Revealed as Author of Best-Selling ‘Wonder Woman,’” read the astonishing headline. In the summer of 1942, a press release from the New York offices of All-American Comics turned up at newspapers, magazines and radio stations all over the United States. The identity of Wonder Woman’s creator had been “at first kept secret,” it said, but the time had come to make a shocking announcement: “the author of ‘Wonder Woman’ is Dr. William Moulton Marston, internationally famous psychologist.” The truth about Wonder Woman had come out at last.

Or so, at least, it was made to appear. But, really, the name of Wonder Woman’s creator was the least of her secrets.

Wonder Woman is the most popular female comic-book superhero of all time. Aside from Superman and Batman, no other comic-book character has lasted as long. Generations of girls have carried their sandwiches to school in Wonder Woman lunchboxes. Like every other superhero, Wonder Woman has a secret identity. Unlike every other superhero, she also has a secret history.

In one episode, a newspaper editor named Brown, desperate to discover Wonder Woman’s past, assigns a team of reporters to chase her down; she easily escapes them. Brown, gone half mad, is committed to a hospital. Wonder Woman disguises herself as a nurse and brings him a scroll. “This parchment seems to be the history of that girl you call ‘Wonder Woman’!” she tells him. “A strange, veiled woman left it with me.” Brown leaps out of bed and races back to the city desk, where he cries out, parchment in hand, “Stop the presses! I’ve got the history of Wonder Woman!” But Wonder Woman’s secret history isn’t written on parchment. Instead, it lies buried in boxes and cabinets and drawers, in thousands of documents, housed in libraries, archives and collections spread all over the United States, including the private papers of creator Marston—papers that, before I saw them, had never before been seen by anyone outside of Marston’s family.

The veil that has shrouded Wonder Woman’s past for seven decades hides beneath it a crucial story about comic books and superheroes and censorship and feminism. As Marston once put it, “Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who, I believe, should rule the world.”

Comic books were more or less invented in 1933 by Maxwell Charles Gaines, a former elementary school principal who went on to found All-American Comics. Superman first bounded over tall buildings in 1938. Batman began lurking in the shadows in 1939. Kids read them by the piles. But at a time when war was ravaging Europe, comic books celebrated violence, even sexual violence. In 1940, the Chicago Daily News called comics a “national disgrace.” “Ten million copies of these sex-horror serials are sold every month,” wrote the newspaper’s literary editor, calling for parents and teachers to ban the comics, “unless we want a coming generation even more ferocious than the present one.”

To defend himself against critics, Gaines, in 1940, hired Marston as a consultant. “‘Doc’ Marston has long been an advocate of the right type of comic magazines,” he explained. Marston held three degrees from Harvard, including a PhD in psychology. He led what he called “an experimental life.” He’d been a lawyer, a scientist and a professor. He is generally credited with inventing the lie detector test: He was obsessed with uncovering other people’s secrets. He’d been a consulting psychologist for Universal Pictures. He’d written screenplays, a novel and dozens of magazine articles. Gaines had read about Marston in an article in Family Circle magazine. In the summer of 1940, Olive Richard, a staff writer for the magazine, visited Marston at his house in Rye, New York, to ask him for his expert opinion about comics.

“Some of them are full of torture, kidnapping, sadism, and other cruel business,” she said.

“Unfortunately, that is true,” Marston admitted, but “when a lovely heroine is bound to the stake, comics followers are sure that the rescue will arrive in the nick of time. The reader’s wish is to save the girl, not to see her suffer.”

Marston tried to showcase Wonder Woman’s athleticism whenever possible. In this 1942 comic she plays baseball; in other episodes she plays ice hockey and tennis and even founds a chain of fitness clubs. (Smithsonian Libraries)
Marston, who was generally considered the inventor of the polygraph test, administers it to the secretary of his law firm in 1921. (Smithsonian Libraries)
In “Victory at Sea,” from March 1943, Steve Trevor proposes administering a lie detector test to Diana Prince, who was secretly Wonder Woman. (Smithsonian Libraries)
Marston (far right) questions a female subject taking a lie detector test, while Olive Byrne (far left) records the answers. (Smithsonian Libraries)
Marston insisted that Wonder Woman be chained or tied in nearly every story. (Smithsonian Libraries)
The bondage of Wonder Woman echoed the iconography used by early suffragists (cartoon by Lou Rogers, far right) and feminists like Margaret Sanger (right, protesting censorship). (Corbis/The University of Michigan)
Dorothy Roubicek proposed gentler methods of restraining Wonder Woman “without the use of chains.” (Smithsonian Libraries)
Wonder Woman goes to court. (Smithsonian Libraries)
Though Wonder Woman drifted from her feminist beginnings, she re-emerged as a symbol of female empowerment – even on lunch box sets like the above (from 1977). (NMAH)
In 1972, the founders of Ms. put her on the cover of the magazine's first regular issue. (Ms. magazine)
Cartoonist David Levine drew Margaret Sanger as Wonder Woman in 1978. (David Levine)
The July 1973 cover of Sister, published by the Los Angeles Women’s Center, showed Wonder Woman wielding a speculum. (Birth Control Review, Harvard College Library)
In this episode, Wonder Woman takes another character, Bif, back in time to prove that history—especially women’s history—isn’t boring. (Smithsonian Libraries)
Marston insisted that comic books were an elevated form of literature, fantasies that “touch the tender spots of universal human desires and aspirations.” (Smithsonian Libraries)
(Smithsonian Libraries)

Marston was a man of a thousand lives and a thousand lies. “Olive Richard” was the pen name of Olive Byrne, and she hadn’t gone to visit Marston—she lived with him. She was also the niece of Margaret Sanger, one of the most important feminists of the 20th century. In 1916, Sanger and her sister, Ethel Byrne, Olive Byrne’s mother, had opened the first birth-control clinic in the United States. They were both arrested for the illegal distribution of contraception. In jail in 1917, Ethel Byrne went on a hunger strike and nearly died.

Olive Byrne met Marston in 1925, when she was a senior at Tufts; he was her psychology professor. Marston was already married, to a lawyer named Elizabeth Holloway. When Marston and Byrne fell in love, he gave Holloway a choice: either Byrne could live with them, or he would leave her. Byrne moved in. Between 1928 and 1933, each woman bore two children; they lived together as a family. Holloway went to work; Byrne stayed home and raised the children. They told census-takers and anyone else who asked that Byrne was Marston’s widowed sister-in-law. “Tolerant people are the happiest,” Marston wrote in a magazine essay in 1939, so “why not get rid of costly prejudices that hold you back?” He listed the “Six Most Common Types of Prejudice.” Eliminating prejudice number six—“Prejudice against unconventional people and non-conformists”—meant the most to him. Byrne’s sons didn’t find out that Marston was their father until 1963—when Holloway finally admitted it—and only after she extracted a promise that no one would raise the subject ever again.

Gaines didn’t know any of this when he met Marston in 1940 or else he would never have hired him: He was looking to avoid controversy, not to court it. Marston and Wonder Woman were pivotal to the creation of what became DC Comics. (DC was short for Detective Comics, the comic book in which Batman debuted.) In 1940, Gaines decided to counter his critics by forming an editorial advisory board and appointing Marston to serve on it, and DC decided to stamp comic books in which Superman and Batman appeared with a logo, an assurance of quality, reading, “A DC Publication.” And, since “the comics’ worst offense was their blood-curdling masculinity,” Marston said, the best way to fend off critics would be to create a female superhero.

“Well, Doc,” Gaines said, “I picked Superman after every syndicate in America turned it down. I’ll take a chance on your Wonder Woman! But you’ll have to write the strip yourself.”

In February 1941, Marston submitted a draft of his first script, explaining the “under-meaning” of Wonder Woman’s Amazonian origins in ancient Greece, where men had kept women in chains, until they broke free and escaped. “The NEW WOMEN thus freed and strengthened by supporting themselves (on Paradise Island) developed enormous physical and mental power.” His comic, he said, was meant to chronicle “a great movement now under way—the growth in the power of women.”

Wonder Woman made her debut in All-Star Comics at the end of 1941 and on the cover of a new comic book, Sensation Comics, at the beginning of 1942, drawn by an artist named Harry G. Peter. She wore a golden tiara, a red bustier, blue underpants and knee-high, red leather boots. She was a little slinky; she was very kinky. She’d left Paradise to fight fascism with feminism, in “America, the last citadel of democracy, and of equal rights for women!”

It seemed to Gaines like so much good, clean, superpatriotic fun. But in March 1942, the National Organization for Decent Literature put Sensation Comics on its blacklist of “Publications Disapproved for Youth” for one reason: “Wonder Woman is not sufficiently dressed.”

Gaines decided he needed another expert. He turned to Lauretta Bender, an associate professor of psychiatry at New York University’s medical school and a senior psychiatrist at Bellevue Hospital, where she was director of the children’s ward, an expert on aggression. She’d long been interested in comics but her interest had grown in 1940, after her husband, Paul Schilder, was killed by a car while walking home from visiting Bender and their 8-day-old daughter in the hospital. Bender, left with three children under the age of 3, soon became painfully interested in studying how children cope with trauma. In 1940, she conducted a study with Reginald Lourie, a medical resident under her supervision, investigating the effect of comics on four children brought to Bellevue Hospital for behavioral problems. Tessie, 12, had witnessed her father, a convicted murderer, kill himself. She insisted on calling herself Shiera, after a comic-book girl who is always rescued at the last minute by the Flash. Kenneth, 11, had been raped. He was frantic unless medicated or “wearing a Superman cape.” He felt safe in it—he could fly away if he wanted to—and “he felt that the cape protected him from an assault.” Bender and Lourie concluded the comic books were “the folklore of this age,” and worked, culturally, the same way fables and fairy tales did.

That hardly ended the controversy. In February 1943, Josette Frank, an expert on children’s literature, a leader of the Child Study Association and a member of Gaines’ advisory board, sent Gaines a letter, telling him that while she’d never been a fan of Wonder Woman, she felt she now had to speak out about its “sadistic bits showing women chained, tortured, etc.” She had a point. In episode after episode, Wonder Woman is chained, bound, gagged, lassoed, tied, fettered and manacled. “Great girdle of Aphrodite!” she cries at one point. “Am I tired of being tied up!”

The story behind the writing and editing of Wonder Woman can be pieced together from Bender’s papers, at Brooklyn College; Frank’s papers, at the University of Minnesota; and Marston’s editorial correspondence, along with a set of original scripts, housed at the Dibner Library at the Smithsonian Institution Libraries. In his original scripts, Marston described scenes of bondage in careful, intimate detail with utmost precision. For a story about Mars, the God of War, Marston gave Peter elaborate instructions for the panel in which Wonder Woman is taken prisoner:

“Closeup, full length figure of WW. Do some careful chaining here—Mars’s men are experts! 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 bands on her wrists, her Amazon bracelets and another set. Between these runs a short chain, about the length of a handcuff chain—this is what compels her to clasp her hands together. Then put another, heavier, larger chain between her wrist bands which hangs in a long loop to just above her knees. At her ankles show a pair of arms and hands, coming from out of the panel, clasping about her ankles. This whole panel will lose its point and spoil the story unless these chains are drawn exactly as described here.”

Later in the story, Wonder Woman is locked in a cell. Straining to overhear a conversation in the next room, through the amplification of “bone conduction,” she takes her chain in her teeth: “Closeup of WW’s head shoulders. She holds her neck chain between her teeth. The chain runs taut between her teeth and the wall, where it is locked to a steel ring bolt.”

Gaines forwarded Frank’s letter of complaint to Marston. Marston shrugged it off. But then Dorothy Roubicek, who helped edit Wonder Woman—the first woman editor at DC Comics—objected to Wonder Woman’s torture, too.

“Of course I wouldn’t expect Miss Roubicek to understand all this,” Marston wrote Gaines. “After all I have devoted my entire life to working out psychological principles. Miss R. has been in comics only 6 months or so, hasn’t she? And never in psychology.” But “the secret of woman’s allure,” he told Gaines, is that “women enjoy submission—being bound.”


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