With the box office success of Wonder Woman, it’s now common knowledge DC’s latest cinematic incarnation of Diana of Themyscira is daughter to Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, and well known god-about-town, Zeus—interesting parents to say the least. Perhaps lesser known, but no less fascinating, are her real life parents, William Moulton Marston, Elizabeth Holloway Marston and Olive Byrne.
William was a doctor of psychology at Harvard where he studied human emotions. He formulated the DISC Theory of human behaviour published in the 1928 essay Emotions of Normal People. He was particularly interested in how people physically respond to their feelings, something he had in common with his future wife Elizabeth Holloway, herself a psychologist and one of three women to graduate from the Boston University School of Law in 1918.
Together they investigated the connection between blood pressure and deception, developing the systolic blood-pressure test, an early form of lie detector. Despite her name not appearing as a collaborator on the invention, Elizabeth’s work was explicitly referenced in what would become a key part of the modern polygraph lie detector. Diana would inherit this part of her parents’ legacy in the form of the Lasso of Truth.
In 1920, the 19th Amendment of the United States Constitution was ratified, granting women the right to vote; however, equality under the law would not come so quickly. Among the many fronts on the fight for gender equality were access to birth control, in a time where over 10,000 women a year died from ‘back alley’ abortions in the US, and the right to serve on juries. Amidst this backdrop, Marston and Holloway performed research they believed demonstrated that women were “more careful, more conscientious and more impartial” than their male counterparts. Marston was a vocal proponent of women’s rights, even going as far as to espouse a form of female supremacy. He posited that as technology and birth control allowed women to have more agency in child bearing, they would naturally (and, to Marston, rightfully) assume dominance in society.
Psychology and feminism were not the couple’s only mutual interest. They also shared a passion for a woman named Olive Byrne. Although she did not publicise it, Byrne was a scion of a venerable feminist lineage, daughter of Ethel Byrne and niece of Margaret Sanger, both veterans of women’s liberation who opened the first birth-control clinic in the US, which would later evolve into what is known today as Planned Parenthood. Olive was a student, then research assistant of Marston’s during his tenure at Tufts University. She granted him access to study the curious world of sorority baby parties, which would inform much of the sexual subtext (or at times just plain text) of the bondage depicted in early Wonder Woman comics. Not that Marston’s interest in bondage was purely academic.
In 1925, Marston, Holloway and Byrne regularly attended meetings together in the apartment of Marston’s aunt Carolyn Keatley. Minutes kept from these meetings paint an image of a sexual “clinic” where the act and philosophy of intercourse and bondage were discussed. By 1926, Marston, Holloway and Byrne lived together with, in Holloway’s words, “love making for all”. Marston would have two children by each of his partners, raised together as one family with “both mummies and poor old dad”. Marston and Holloway pursued their careers and Byrne assumed the bulk of domestic duties in an arrangement that apparently suited all.
With his fixation on sex, deceit, and emotional response, it was perhaps natural for him to be drawn to the world of cinema. He was hired by Universal Studios in 1928 as a consulting psychologist. In 1929 he, along with his colleague Walter Pitkin, published The Art of Sound Pictures, a study of film and censorship that described in detail what could and could not pass the censors across the United States.
At the dawn of the forties, with the shadow of fascism spreading dark and deep, Byrne worried comic book heroes like Batman and Superman idealised a “Hitlerian” form of justice, implicitly endorsing a view that an elite few (men) should dictate the world’s destiny based on their inherent superiority. At the time she was a writer for Family Circle under the pseudonym Olive Richard, she addressed her concerns in a story for the publication titled Don’t Laugh at the Comics. As part of the piece she interviewed Marston who eased her mind. He saw “great educational potential” for the medium and was amongst those who saw comics as a modern heir to mythic storytelling. This school of thought is a clear inspiration for Diana’s Hellenistic origins, as well the likes of Marvel’s Thor. One who would come to read Byrne’s article was M. C. Gaines, publisher of Superman. Gaines offered Marston a chance to facedown critics of the medium by creating a superhero of his own.
Myths are woven from history, but sometimes they inspire it. Marston seized the opportunity and sought to invent a mythological embodiment of the feminism of the day to give children an idealised female role model. Supposedly, the women in his life gave her form, endowed with Holloway’s intellect, Byrne’s appearance, and the feminist spirit of both. This original Diana was a clay figure given life by the Greek goddesses, in a form of Immaculate Conception, free of any male influence. A New Woman in every sense. She was of the Amazons, who had broken free of their cruel enslavement by Hercules (decidedly not the Disney version) to found a loving society on Paradise Island. This was also the origin of her unbreakable bracelets, they were the slave manacles the Amazons wore to never forget their subjugation.
And so, in December 1941, the first lady of comics was born. Her triplicate parents gifted her a lasso capable of detecting the truth, a desire to conquer evil through love, as well as their progressive politics and sexual adventurousness, and with them she journeyed into Man’s World to punch Nazis and fight for equality. From the coloured page, Wonder Woman advocated women’s rights; in the 1943 comic The Battle for Womanhood she gave this advice to a woman chained by her super villain husband: “Get strong! Earn your own living…and fight for your country!” Diana, and the feminism she was made from, capitalised on the wartime need for empowered women, carving out a space for herself, perhaps for women in general, in the public imagination and into the bedrock of popular culture. After Marston’s death and the end of WWII, Diana’s more esoteric and provocative elements were gradually downplayed, her myth evolving as they all do. But maybe there is still a place for a radical feminist warrior princess; the box office seems to suggest so.