The Astounding History of the world’s most famous Super-Heroine!

Laura Macfehin brings you up to speed on the polyamorous, feminist and BDSM heavy back story of the most successful female comic book character of all time.


“In your satin tights! Fighting for our rights! And the old Red, White and Blue!”

So proclaimed the impossibly funky intro to the 1970s New Adventures of Wonder Woman starring ex-beauty-queen Lynda Carter. This was the incarnation that I was first exposed to and I loved for all the usual reasons kids love superheroes; she was strong, beautiful and she had adventures.  At the time I was not cognizant of the fact that the programme was meant to be set in the 1940s – I didn’t know where or when she came from– just that she could do really big jumps and deflect bullets with her jewellery.  And also that she was somehow outside of time and space – she was super and therefore eternal.


Introducing… Wonder Woman!

On paper Wonder Woman had sped into popular consciousness in the early 1940s, flying her invisible plane to a top spot in popularity just behind Superman and Batman. Since then the public has seen her not just battle super villains, but also be banned, tamed, divested and reinvested with her superpowers, reclaimed as a feminist icon and dismissed as a pawn of the CIA. And all the while the secrets of her origins her possibly the wildest story of all. Harvard historian Jill Lepore’s latest work The Secret History of Wonder Woman explores the sometimes seamy, always fascinating secret history of America’s favourite super-heroine.

secret history of wonder woman

William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman’s creator was literally a master of deception. He invented the first lie detector, a machine he continued to peddle to everyone from the War department to Hollywood studios for the rest of his working life. This interest in obfuscation had a palpable parallel in his personal life, in which he maintained a polyamorous relationship with two women, with whom he had four children. All seven lived together in a family set up which would be considered somewhat unconventional today and in the first half of the 20th century required some out-and-out lying to protect.  As a backdrop for creating a comic book character with the dual identities of Wonder Woman and Diana Prince it would turn out to be perfect.


You and me and Olive makes three

Marston was already married to Elizabeth Holloway Marston when he met Olive Byrne, a student at Yale where he was teaching psychology.  Byrne was a radical young woman with an Eton crop and large heavy bangles on both wrists; Marston gave her the best marks she received at college and the two became inseparable. The Marston’s had previously lived with another woman, so the scenario William proposed was not completely out of the blue. Elizabeth agreed with the proviso that Olive be the one to stay home and keep house while she continued to work in the city. It was a set up that continued through the rest of their lives, with Elizabeth being the most consistent breadwinner, Olive raising the children and William being free to pursue he various academic pursuits. The two women continued to live together until their deaths, outlasting their husband by several decades.

Family portrait with Marston surrounded by his children.  Elizabeth stands behind him and Olive is seated on the right.

The two women formed the basis not only for their rather bohemian home life but also for one of the most lasting cultural icons of the 20th century. Marston had been interested in the potential of comics after seeing the rapid rise of their popularity in the 1930’s. An ardent feminist from the 19th century suffragette mould, he believed a superhero could promote the values he felt were lacking in the world — equality between the sexes being the chief of these. Elizabeth, looking at the profusion of superheroes in newsprint insisted the new superhero be a heroine. Olive Byrne provided the physical blueprint for the comic book heroine, right down to the large silver bracelets which are able to deflect bullets, but the philosophy for Amazonian princess also fell right out of her family tree. You see, Olive had rather a famous aunt. In fact she owed her life to that aunt who not only delivered her into the world but rescued her from the snow drift her drunk father threw her into only a few hours later.

Olive Byrne’s aunt, Margaret Sanger

The most dangerous woman in America

Margaret Sanger was indeed on of the most famous women in the world (some would have said infamous) in her heyday. In the early years of the 20th century she was prosecuted for indecency after the publication of her book ‘Family Limitation’ which detailed how to obtain and use contraception, and jailed along with her sister Ethel after they opened a free clinic in New York distributing contraception and birth control advice. Her sister Ethel went on hunger strike and was the first woman to be force-fed in the United States. Sanger was a socialist and a feminist whose books underpinned what would become Wonder Woman’s ideology to such a degree that when a new writer was hired to write the strip Olive handed her a copy of Sanger’s ‘Woman and the New Race’ telling her it contained everything she needed to know about the super-heroine.


Tie me up, tie me down

As well as the strong feminist and socialist leanings of early Wonder Woman (“Suffering Sappho!” was one of her favourite catchphrases as she encouraged young shop girls to strike) there was another marked characteristic to the comic strips that was hard to ignore. With her spike heel red boots and tendency to be chained up in just about every adventure it would hard not to think that her creator had more than a passing interest in BDSM, and in fact he certainly did. He, Elizabeth and Olive had all belonged to radical groups interested in different sexualities and he continued to be a keen advocate for what he described as ‘love subjugation’. Thus Wonder Woman spends half her time breaking the shackles imposed on herself and other women and the other half tying people up (the lasso of truth must surely be the most succinct expression of Marston’s two hobbies).


After Marston relinquished control of Wonder Woman she went through the cycle of breaking down and reinvention common to many superheroes during the twentieth century.  The 1950s saw her tamed by Steve Trevor and the 1960s saw her briefly stripped of her powers all together.  She was held up as an icon during second wave feminism, only to be shot down as perpetuating sexist ideas of femininity.

Kristy Guevarra-Flanagan’s documentary Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines shows how central to cultural iconography Wonder Woman remains, whether she is being re-contextualised in Riot Grrrl zines or cosplayed at ComicCon she remains immediately identifiable and ready to defend and empower. The new blockbuster coming out next week will see her finally get the same cinematic treatment as her DC pals Superman and Batman, although what Marston, Elizabeth and Olive with their anti-war beliefs would have thought about a literal poster-girl for the Israeli Defence Forces playing the super-heroine I am not sure. It is fitting that as with much of women’s history Wonder Woman’s story was all but lost due to close links to an unorthodoxy within the home; to the static between family and national politics. One thing is for sure, in the current climate we have never been in more need of either Wonder Woman herself or of the research that has unearthed her true identity.


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