Over the weekend, I saw an article on largely unknown facts about comic books or comic book characters. I can’t find it right now, but it was on a click-bait site. It included a fact about Wonder Woman that I hadn’t heard before.
The fact I hadn’t read or heard before? That Margaret Sanger was the basis for Wonder Woman. It may be something that has been widely reported at some point, but I’d never heard it. The creator of the comic even did his best to hide that fact for as long as possible.
A 2014 article in Smithsonian magazine by Jill Lepore confirms the report. In 1942 it was reported that Wonder Woman’s creator was Dr. William Moulton Marston, “an internationally famous psychologist.”
The article includes a quote from Marston that, “Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who, I believe, should rule the world.”
Smithsonian notes that Marston’s attitude was a response to the popularity of sexually violent comic books:
But at a time when war was ravaging Europe, comic books celebrated violence, even sexual violence. In 1940, the Chicago Daily News called comics a “national disgrace.” “Ten million copies of these sex-horror serials are sold every month,” wrote the newspaper’s literary editor, calling for parents and teachers to ban the comics, “unless we want a coming generation even more ferocious than the present one.”
Marston was hired as a consultant by the founder of All-American Comics, Maxwell Charles Gaines. Gaines wanted to use Marston to shield him from criticism.
A staff writer named Olive Richard interviewed Marston at his home for Family Circle magazine in 1940.
From that interview, via Smithsonian:
“Some of them are full of torture, kidnapping, sadism, and other cruel business,” she said.
“Unfortunately, that is true,” Marston admitted, but “when a lovely heroine is bound to the stake, comics followers are sure that the rescue will arrive in the nick of time. The reader’s wish is to save the girl, not to see her suffer.”
Lepore goes on to note that “Olive Richard” is the pen name for Olive Byrne, who already lived with Marston and his wife. More on Olive Byrne:
She was also the niece of Margaret Sanger, one of the most important feminists of the 20th century. In 1916, Sanger and her sister, Ethel Byrne, Olive Byrne’s mother, had opened the first birth-control clinic in the United States. They were both arrested for the illegal distribution of contraception. In jail in 1917, Ethel Byrne went on a hunger strike and nearly died.
Marston and Byrne met when she was a senior at Tufts and he was her psychology professor. They fell in love and he told his wife, Elizabeth Holloway, that Byrne could move in with them or he would be moving out. Marston fathered two children by each of the women in the household between 1928 and 1933. Holloway finally admitted to Byrne’s sons in 1963 that Marston was their father. Gaines knew none of this when he hired Marston.
In case you’re having trouble keeping up, Lepore notes (via NPR), “So there was his wife, Elizabeth Holloway, his mistress, Olive Byrne and another woman named Marjorie Wilkes Huntley, who kind of was in and out of the family.”
Lepore discussed Sanger as inspiration for Wonder Woman in more detail in an NPR interview from 2014. That interview also notes that the costume for Wonder Woman was inspired by erotic pinup art.
Wonder Woman debuted in All-Star Comics in 1941 and appeared on the cover of Sensation Comics in 1942. In the Smithsonian article, Lepore notes that controversy ensued:
But in March 1942, the National Organization for Decent Literature put Sensation Comics on its blacklist of “Publications Disapproved for Youth” for one reason: “Wonder Woman is not sufficiently dressed.”
From the NPR interview:
But one of the things that’s a defining element of Wonder Woman is that if a man binds her in chains, she loses all of her Amazonian strength. And so in almost every episode of the early comics – the ones that Marston wrote – she’s chained up or she’s roped up. It’s usually chains. And then she has to break free of these chains, and that’s, Marston would always say, in order to signify her emancipation from men. But those chains are really an important part of the feminist and suffrage struggles of the 1910s that Marston was – had a kind of front-row seat for.
Also in the NPR interview, host Terry Gross and Lepore discuss the “big kind of fetishistic, sexual aspect to the bondage and the chains in Wonder Woman.”
A woman member of the advisory board for Gaines’ comics even sent a letter of complaint about Wonder Woman’s”“sadistic bits showing women chained, tortured, etc.” and Lepore agrees with her in the story:
She had a point. In episode after episode, Wonder Woman is chained, bound, gagged, lassoed, tied, fettered and manacled. “Great girdle of Aphrodite!” she cries at one point. “Am I tired of being tied up!”
Marston shrugged off the criticism and when Dorothy Roubicek, an editor who actually worked on Wonder Woman, complained, he said:
“Of course I wouldn’t expect Miss Roubicek to understand all this,” Marston wrote Gaines. “After all I have devoted my entire life to working out psychological principles. Miss R. has been in comics only 6 months or so, hasn’t she? And never in psychology.” But “the secret of woman’s allure,” he told Gaines, is that “women enjoy submission—being bound.”
Marston was hiding his relationship with Olive Byrne, his connection to Margaret Sanger, which tied into the images of bondage:
Hidden behind this controversy is one reason for all those chains and ropes, which has to do with the history of the fight for women’s rights. Because Marston kept his true relationship with Olive Byrne a secret, he kept his family’s ties to Margaret Sanger a secret, too. Marston, Byrne and Holloway, and even Harry G. Peter, the artist who drew Wonder Woman, had all been powerfully influenced by the suffrage, feminism and birth control movements. And each of those movements had used chains as a centerpiece of its iconography.
More details on the use of similar art in Sanger-related publications is included on the second page of the Smithsonian article.
Lepore sums up that section with this:
When Marston created Wonder Woman, in 1941, he drew on Sanger’s legacy and inspiration. But he was also determined to keep the influence of Sanger on Wonder Woman a secret.
More on Margaret Sanger:
the Inspiration for Wonder Woman
Sanger was known as a free love (e.g. the arrangement already mentioned that her niece was involved in) and birth control activist, but what her supporters want to cover up now is her support for eugenics.
Much of the quotes have been cited before by the modern pro-life movement. I’ll get to them in a moment but I thought that quoting her Wikipedia entry might be a good thing to do, since any edits to her biography there are highly scrutinized due to the controversy surrouding her.
In “The Morality of Birth Control,” a 1921 speech, she divided society into three groups: the “educated and informed” class that regulated the size of their families, the “intelligent and responsible” who desired to control their families in spite of lacking the means or the knowledge, and the “irresponsible and reckless people” whose religious scruples “prevent their exercising control over their numbers.” Sanger concludes, “There is no doubt in the minds of all thinking people that the procreation of this group should be stopped.”
Sanger’s eugenic policies included an exclusionary immigration policy, free access to birth control methods, and full family planningautonomy for the able-minded, as well as compulsory segregation or sterilization for the “profoundly retarded”. In her book The Pivot of Civilization, she advocated coercion to prevent the “undeniably feeble-minded” from procreating.
National Right to Life has written more about Sanger and eugenics:
But if someone is truly “unfit,” he or she is too stupid or out-of-control to stop reproducing voluntarily. So, as Sanger wrote in 1921, governments should “attempt to restrain, either by force or persuasion, the moron and the imbecile from producing his large family of feeble-minded offspring.”
Now you understand Sanger’s support of forced sterilization of the “unfit,” something enthusiastically promoted by many of her friends and collaborators, such as former Planned Parenthood president Alan Guttmacher (after whom Planned Parenthood’s former research arm is named) or Clarence Gamble, who used his fortune to set up sterilization clinics throughout the South and Midwest.
Gamble was proud of his work promoting involuntary sterilization but complained in 1947 that there was much more to do: “For every one man or woman who has been sterilized, there are 40 others who can continue to pour defective genes into the State’s bloodstream to pollute and degrade future generations.”
- “The most merciful thing that the large family does to one of its infant members is to kill it.”
- “Birth control must lead ultimately to a cleaner race.”
- “We should hire three or four colored ministers, preferably with social-service backgrounds, and with engaging personalities. The most successful educational approach to the Negro is through a religious appeal. We don’t want the word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population, and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.”
- “[We should] apply a stern and rigid policy of sterilization and segregation to that grade of population whose progeny is tainted, or whose inheritance is such that objectionable traits may be transmitted to offspring.”
- “I accepted an invitation to talk to the women’s branch of the Ku Klux Klan … I saw through the door dim figures parading with banners and illuminated crosses … I was escorted to the platform, was introduced, and began to speak … In the end, through simple illustrations I believed I had accomplished my purpose. A dozen invitations to speak to similar groups were proffered.”
- I think the greatest sin in the world is bringing children into the world – that have disease from their parents, that have no chance in the world to be a human being practically. Delinquents, prisoners, all sorts of things just marked when they’re born. That to me is the greatest sin – that people can – can commit.
The creator of Wonder Woman was living with two lovers, his wife, and their children. He thought women want to be submissive and bound and he admired Sanger, an advocate of free love and eugenics. I can see why he hid all of this from the people behind what became DC Comics.