Wonder where she came from?

By Jennifer McClain

She has one foot in the past and one foot in the future. Her past is a combination of Greek myth and Amazon speculation. Her future is traveling three thousand per hour on an invisible plane, wielding a “magic lasso” that non-violently compels obedience and she uses science for medical healing.

Wonder who she is? Wonder Woman — the super heroine who debuted in DC Comics in 1941, who had her own TV show from 1975-1979,  and who took theaters by storm this summer in a blockbuster movie.

But who was her creator?

He was also a man with one foot in the past and one foot in the future. His past was as a student of the Malden High School. Did he possibly study mythology in one of his classes? His future was “to fight for liberty & freedom for all women kind” through Wonder Woman. He watched the suffragists and used their imagery in his stories. He knew Margaret Sanger when she was a proponent of birth control and still not the leader of Planned Parenthood. She also was used for story ideas in Wonder Woman.

The man behind the woman was William Moulton Marston.

Yes, he spent his formative years here in Malden. Maybe it was our own Malden High School teachers who first gave him the idea that women could be unconventional and liberated. We can most likely assume in the early 1900’s that his teachers were women.

In a 1943 issue of The American Scholar,  Marston wrote: “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.”

This was the formula for Wonder Woman. She is sugar and spice and everything nice with the strength of Superman.

1978 game card of Wonder Woman

Marston, also known by the pen name Charles Moulton, was  born in Saugus in 1893 and became a psychologist, inventor, professor and a self-help promoter. In an odd  twist, he also became a comic book writer who created a feminist icon, Wonder Woman, with help from illustrator Harry George Peter and possibly from his wife [reqiures NYT login], Elizabeth Holloway Marston.

We may not be able to speculate how Marston became a feminist but we do know where he got his start as a writer and someone who could spin a yarn. It was in the Malden Literary Society. He wrote  a poem called “Bells” with the cheeky tag line “with thanks to Edgar Allan Poe, and commiseration for the reader.” Here is the first stanza:

Hear the Bells / ‘Lectric Bells! / Oh, the longed-for recreation their insistent sound foretells / How they ring, ring, ring / While the teachers cautions fling, / ‘Mid the whispered conversations / And the murmured salutations, / That so musically pass / ‘Round the class, class, class, class, / Class, class, class, / ‘Round the much relieved, exceeding weary class.

And it goes on from there, each stanza sillier than the last.  The Malden High School yearbook has photos of  William Moulton Marston in his football uniform. His team made it to the state championships in his senior year. (He also played football for Harvard but stopped due to injuries.) In his high school photo, he wears a very serious expression. Maybe he was practicing his poker face — a facade he planned to breakthrough when he invented the systolic blood pressure test, which became one component of the modern polygraph or lie detector. This may be the inspiration for  the “magic lasso” that Wonder Woman uses to force people to tell the truth.

Marston, right, testing his lie detector.

Marston wanted the United States government to use the  polygraph to detect espionage when the United States entered World War I. The National Research Council declined citing skepticism. Marston claimed his polygraph technology had been successful in both his Harvard Laboratory and in the Boston Municipal Court. Yerkes, who declined Marston’s proposal stated in a letter than “galvano-psychic and vaso-motor reactions [would] be more delicate indicators than blood pressure; but the same results would be practically impossible to divide any individual case.”

After World War I and the National Research’s decline of funding, Marston had several academic posts but was also an expert witness in the Frye case. Frye was accused of murder. By most historical accounts, Frye was guilty of killing Dr. Brown and was even witnessed murdering Dr. Brown by another physician. Yet, he was found innocent by Marston’s polygraph test even though it was ruled inadmissible due to lack of credible scientific evidence that the test worked. First Frye confessed then he recanted. Marston found his innocence truthful and later it was discovered that Frye only confessed for a share of the reward. Due to this case “expert opinion based on a scientific technique is admissible only where the technique is generally accepted as reliable in the relevant scientific community”. It later become known as the Frye standard.

“We think the systolic blood pressure deception test has not yet gained such standing and scientific recognition among physiological and psychological authorities as would justify the courts in admitting expert testimony deduced from the discovery, development, and experiments thus far made.” This was the statement issued by the judicial system in the case Frye v United States 293 F.1013 (1923).

(l to r) William Moulton Marston, H. G. Peter, Sheldon Mayer, Max Gaines in 1942. Marston died in 1947. Source: Wikipedia.

Marston may also have been influenced by the women in his life (NYT requires free login)[note: link requires NYT subscription]. He reportedly had a polyamorous relationship with two feminists: his wife, lawyer Elizabeth Holloway Marston, and his former college student Olive Byrne, the niece of Margaret Sanger.

Marston continued his work on the polygraph but outside of a few advertisements, it was never very successful. But in 1940, when he was an educational consultant for Detective Comics (DC), Inc, he stumbled into his  claim to fame. Marston questioned Max Gaines then the head of DC Inc. why there wasn’t a female comic book hero and a legend was born. Wonder Woman appeared in 1941, bursting on to the pages with  her bulletproof bracelets, magic lasso, and her Amazonian training. The rest, as they say, was history.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for your research and effort illuminating this. A nice piece on the intersection of feminist history and pop culture right in our own back yard!

2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Movie Review: The Malden man and his Wonder Women – Neighborhood View
  2. Comics Writer, Polyamorous, Feminist: William Moulton Marston - Neighborhood View

Leave a Reply