Deception, Lies & Spies: The Secret Life of Wonder Woman’s Creator

Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston was a Harvard-educated lawyer, psychologist, and the inventor of the lie detector but it was his superhero in red boots that set America’s imagination on fire.

Inspired by suffragists and centerfolds, Wonder Woman challenged male-dominated comic books and reigning superheroes Batman and Superman when she burst onto the scene in 1941 to become the most popular female comic book hero of all time. Wonder Woman was a dichotomy - a strong woman who reflected her creator’s interest in the female suffrage movement as well as his penchant for pin-up beauties.

“Is this a feminist project that’s supposed to help girls decide to go to college and have careers or is this just like soft porn?” asked Jill Lepore, author of The Secret History of Wonder Woman.

Both, it seemed, and audiences couldn’t get enough after Wonder Woman appeared in All Star Comics #8 in 1941.

W.M. Marston: The Psychiatrist Who Created Wonder Woman & the Lie Detector

Wonder Woman's backstory

The bustier-and-boots fashion icon lived on female-only Paradise Island to escape male enslavement, according to her comic book backstory. The Island is home to female warriors known as the Amazons.

Unfortunately for the islanders, a military intelligence officer - Steve Trevor (aka Steve Howard) - ejects from his burning plane and disrupts the island’s calm. Wonder Woman flies him home in her invisible jet and it turns out the pilots have a lot in common.

The US Air Force Colonel and sometimes astronaut works for the covert S.O.S. (Spy-on-Spy) organization alongside Major Diana Prince (aka Wonder Woman) at Military Intelligence HQ. She calls him 'hot shot'. He calls her 'angel'.

In addition to her invisible jet and killer heels, Wonder Woman also has a few weapons including bullet-stopping bracelets and a magic golden lasso so she can rope people into telling the truth. (Marston had a fascination with lies and the truth throughout his career.)

Deception, Lies & Spies: The Secret Life of Wonder Woman’s Creator

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Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston was a Harvard-educated lawyer, psychologist, and the inventor of the lie detector but it was his superhero in red boots that set America’s imagination on fire.

Inspired by suffragists and centerfolds, Wonder Woman challenged male-dominated comic books and reigning superheroes Batman and Superman when she burst onto the scene in 1941 to become the most popular female comic book hero of all time. Wonder Woman was a dichotomy - a strong woman who reflected her creator’s interest in the female suffrage movement as well as his penchant for pin-up beauties.

“Is this a feminist project that’s supposed to help girls decide to go to college and have careers or is this just like soft porn?” asked Jill Lepore, author of The Secret History of Wonder Woman.

Both, it seemed, and audiences couldn’t get enough after Wonder Woman appeared in All Star Comics #8 in 1941.

W.M. Marston: The Psychiatrist Who Created Wonder Woman & the Lie Detector

Wonder Woman's backstory

The bustier-and-boots fashion icon lived on female-only Paradise Island to escape male enslavement, according to her comic book backstory. The Island is home to female warriors known as the Amazons.

Unfortunately for the islanders, a military intelligence officer - Steve Trevor (aka Steve Howard) - ejects from his burning plane and disrupts the island’s calm. Wonder Woman flies him home in her invisible jet and it turns out the pilots have a lot in common.

The US Air Force Colonel and sometimes astronaut works for the covert S.O.S. (Spy-on-Spy) organization alongside Major Diana Prince (aka Wonder Woman) at Military Intelligence HQ. She calls him 'hot shot'. He calls her 'angel'.

In addition to her invisible jet and killer heels, Wonder Woman also has a few weapons including bullet-stopping bracelets and a magic golden lasso so she can rope people into telling the truth. (Marston had a fascination with lies and the truth throughout his career.)

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W.M. Marston: The Psychiatrist Who Created Wonder Woman & the Lie Detector

Wonder Woman: Shades of S&M

Wonder Woman’s character is both powerful and at times frail, the master of her own destiny as well as a victim of circumstance - a complicated pastiche that reflects Marston’s complicated lifestyle.

His preference for S&M and no-nonsense female characters is evident in the early stories where Wonder Woman is either chained up or tied up in almost every episode - a plight that severely disrupts her powers. 

Suffragette City

Marston, born in Massachusetts in 1893, became interested in the suffragette movement in 1911 during his days as a Harvard freshman. The university banned British feminist Emmeline Pankhurst from speaking on campus at a time when suffragettes were protesting and chaining themselves to the White House gates, stirring publicity on campus.

The image of a woman shackled and breaking free of her chains - part suffragette, part bondage fantasy - became a recurring theme in Marston’s work and in Wonder Woman.

W.M. Marston: The Psychiatrist Who Created Wonder Woman & the Lie Detector

When Marston graduated with a law degree and Ph.D. in psychology, he married his childhood sweetheart, an ambitious career woman, Sadie Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Marston, a graduate of Boston University School of Law. The couple had two children but the marriage was far from traditional.

The psychiatrist - now practicing and teaching at Tufts University - had an affair with a student, Olive Byrne, and fathered two more children. Marston gave his wife an ultimatum - put up with an open marriage or he’d leave her. She chose marriage and both families lived under the same roof in Rye, outside of New York City.

Wonder Woman was apparently based on both women.

W.M. Marston: The Psychiatrist Who Created Wonder Woman & the Lie Detector
Marston created an early version of the lie detector


The real-life Wonder Woman lie detector

Marston was essentially living a lie - a lawyer and psychologist in a secret polyamorous relationship - when he invented an early version of the lie detector.

With the help of his wife, Marston reportedly discovered a link between lying and blood pressure. He went on to build a device that would measure blood pressure changes while the subject was questioned, publishing his findings in 1917. Marston bathed in the limelight declaring “the end of man's long, futile striving for a means of distinguishing truth-telling from deception".

His mistress, Olive, meanwhile, was working as a staff writer for Family Circle Magazine advising housewives about how to raise their children with traditional, conservative family values. (By this time, Marston had taken up with a third woman - Marjorie Wilkes Huntley - who lived in their attic.) 

W.M. Marston: The Psychiatrist Who Created Wonder Woman & the Lie Detector
Actress Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman


The Wonder Woman years

Marston’s creation of Wonder Woman soon followed and he was often better known by his pen name Charles Moulton. A press release said he aimed “to set up a standard among children and young people of strong, free, courageous womanhood”. 

“Frankly, Wonder Woman is the psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world,” he added.

When his mistress, Olive, interviewed him for Family Circle she noted his comics were actually filled with ‘torture, kidnapping, sadism, and other cruel business’.

“Unfortunately, that is true,” he replied but added that “the reader’s wish is to save the girl, not to see her suffer.” In his research, Marston apparently came to believe that women had a tendency toward submission to loving authority.

Marston turned his attention in his later years to studying personality traits and is credited with creating the DISC personality assessment test - used to screen job candidates and by motivational speakers including Tony Robbins. He also reportedly wrote screenplays, novels, and articles, and worked as a consulting psychologist for Universal Pictures. 

Marston’s connection to Wonder Woman stopped in 1947, the year he died of cancer, leaving his radical feminist hero to her fate.

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