Lie Detectors, Bracelets, and Wonder Women

Fine, but make her a woman – Elizabeth Holloway Marston

In 1941, comic book readers were introduced to Diana of Themyscira, the daughter of Queen Hippolyta who, on an island of Amazonian women, created a child out of clay and asked the goddess Aphrodite to grant it life. Diana would travel to the world of man and see the destruction we had wrought. She would act as an ambassador of love, working to help humanity find a way to live in peace. It was, and still sadly is, an impossible mission to accomplish, but Diana isn’t the kind of woman to back down from a challenge.

And while William Moulton Marston is credited as the creator of Wonder Woman, the reality is that it was the two women in his life that gave the heroine life.

Elizabeth Holloway took her first breath of life on the Isle of Man in 1893. From a young age, it was clear that Elizabeth was highly intelligent and motivated. At a time when the idea of women attaining a higher education was both rare and looked at as pointless, Holloway earned three, starting with a A.B. in psychology from Mount Holyoke College in 1915. It was while at Mount Holyoke that Elizabeth would be introduced to the concept of feminism, would first read the works of – and become obsessed with – the Greek poet Sappho, and would meet and become engaged to William Moulton Marston.

When Marston headed to Harvard to continue his education, Elizabeth followed but, as she explained to the New York Times in 1992, “Those dumb bunnies at Harvard wouldn’t take women”. Elizabeth was offered a chance to attend Harvard’s sister school Radcliffe, but she refused, claiming it was “lovely law for ladies” and chose to go to Boston University instead.

Elizabeth’s father refused to pay for her education, and Elizabeth refused to accept Marston’s offer to cover her tuition. To cover the costs, she sold cookbooks to women’s clubs. In 1918, Elizabeth received her law degree – she was one of only three women in her graduating class. When she and Marston went to take the bar exam in Massachusetts, she finished, and scored higher, than he had; something she never let the Harvard man forget.

Three years later, Elizabeth would receive her master’s degree from Radcliffe when she helped Marston create the systolic blood pressure test – better known as a lie detector. While Marston received the credit for the invention, the idea came from Elizabeth after she noticed that her blood pressure would rise whenever she became agitated or nervous. The device itself never worked very well.

In 1925, while teaching at Tufts University, William Marston, now married to Elizabeth, met Olive Byrne. Olive, whose mother and aunt founded the organization that would later become known as Planned Parenthood, was tall with dark hair and often wore two bracelets; one on each wrist. She and Marston soon began an affair – one that Elizabeth seemed to have no issue with. In time, Olive moved into William and Elizabeth’s home. The exact form of the relationship between William, Elizabeth, and Olive was never made clear to outsiders; neighbors were told that Olive was Elizabeth’s widowed sister.

When Olive interviewed William for a story in THE FAMILY CIRCLE titled Don’t Laugh at the Comics, Marston’s remarks about the wasted potential of comic books caught the attention of Max Gaines, the publisher of All-American Comics (and later EC Comics). Gaines hired Marston to act as an educational consultant for his comics. Looking at the comics, William noted that the heroes all used violence to solve their problems. Wanting to show children that there was another way, he decided to create a hero who would use compassion to stop evil. It was Elizabeth, who was also looking at the endless amount of comics featuring strong men, who suggested that William make his hero a woman.

Marston saw his creation as a chance to show girls that they too could be powerful as long as they stayed feminine. In what was surely a progressive way of looking at things in the 1940s, but today seems rather regressive, Marston explained his reason for creating Wonder Woman in an article he wrote for AMERICAN SCHOLAR:

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.

Gaines, along with his partner Jack Liebowitz were less interested in setting an example for girls and more interested in cashing in on the rising women’s liberation movement.

In October 1941, Wonder Woman made her debut in ALL-STAR COMICS #8. Her story, simply titled Wonder Woman served as the backup to a Justice Society of America story and went unmentioned on the cover. Marston used the women in his life as inspiration for the character – Wonder Woman carried a golden lasso of truth that she used to bind her enemies. Her two bracelets, called the Bracelets of Submission, were – as the story goes – worn to remind Wonder Woman and the other Amazons of their time as submissive slaves to Hercules and made indestructible by the goddess Aphrodite. Where Superman was weakened by Kryptonite (though that concept hadn’t shown up in the comics yet), Wonder Woman would lose her strength if a man was able to weld chains to her bracelets. Wonder Woman’s catchphrase, “Suffering Sappho!” was Marston’s nod to Elizabeth, who was known to say it when she was aggravated.

While Marston showed her to be as strong as Superman and as smart as Batman, in other comics the heroine’s abilities were ignored – when she became the first woman to join the Justice Society of America, Wonder Woman was given the title of “team secretary” and was often left behind at the headquarters while the rest of the group went to fight evil.

Still, Wonder Woman was an instant hit with readers, but certain aspects of the character concerned not only critics, but William Gaines as well, namely Marston’s fetishistic use of bondage in every story he wrote.

While he did not deny the eroticism of the work, he saw it as both a way to teach young readers about their sexuality and the difference between bondage between consenting adults – the Amazons often played bondage games in Marston’s stories – and bondage that was intended to cause harm. Marston also used the comics to teach about a concept he called, “loving authorities”. Marston, a proponent for rehabilitation and transformative justice, believed that too much focus was put on retributive justice instead of helping those who have committed acts of violence find a way to better express their anger and ego driven destructive tendencies through more positive actions. In Marston’s Wonder Woman stories, the Amazons had a second island off the coast of Paradise Island called Transformation Island where lawbreakers were sent to relearn how to love through bondage.

When other writers took over Wonder Woman’s solo adventures, the bondage aspect was all but erased.

William Moulton Marston died at the age of 53 in 1947. Elizabeth and Olive continued to live together until Olive’s death some forty years later. While there is some disagreement on if their relationship was sexual, there is no doubt that Elizabeth and Olive loved each other. To their friends and family, including their four children – they each had two with William – Elizabeth and Olive were referred to as “the ladies” and were never seen apart. While Olive stayed home to care for the children, Elizabeth worked at MetLife. After the kids had all gone to college, after each one built a life of their own, right up until Olive’s death in the 1980s, the two women spent each day together.

In 1993, at the age of 100, with a copy of Sappho’s poems by her side, Elizabeth Holloway Marston passed away.

*Header Photo: Warner Brothers; Additional Photos: DC Comics