The height of comic book popularity coincided with World War II, an era that saw the creation of Superman, Captain America, Batman, Green Lantern and the Flash. In a world ravaged by war, these powerful men fought against the forces of evil. Lionizing the battle of good versus evil was not just for kids: Enlisted men requested comic books in great quantities. In fact, one-fourth of all the magazines military men received during the war were comics.
But what these men found in those comics often reflected their violent lives. Harvard psychologist William Moulton Marston, claimed that "comics' worst offense was their blood-curdling masculinity."
That's when he struck upon the idea of creating a female superhero who used love as well as strength to conquer evil: Wonder Woman. She made her first appearance in 1941 in All Star Comics #8. Soon after, Wonder Woman won a fan poll as the best new comic book character. This popularity led to her own comic series.
Wonder Woman worked undercover for the chief of U.S. military intelligence fighting the Axis powers and other enemies, such as the Duke of Deception. In fact, deception and truth were prominent themes in Marston's psychological research and found an outlet through Wonder Woman's powers. One of her most enduring symbols—her golden lasso of truth—had deep psychological origins: Marston focused his 1921 dissertation research on the physiological symptoms of deception, which later led to his work on the polygraph. The lie-detector concept eventually evolved into Wonder Woman's lasso.
Two women in Marston's life shaped the character. Marston lived in a polyamerous relationship with: his wife, Elizabeth, and a former student, Olive Byrne. Perhaps most influential was the discrimination Marston's wife faced when she was barred from attending Harvard Law School with him because she was a woman. These societal injustices found their way into Marston's character. Wonder Woman's powers would be nullified if she were ever restrained by a man, according to "Aphrodite's Law."
Marston believed World War I had fostered the notion of equality for women and that the end of World War II would also see an end of the idea of a "weaker sex." In 1943, he depicted Wonder Woman removing the chains of "prejudice," "prudery" and "man's superiority" from her body.
In a 1942 interview with a "Family Circle," Marston predicted how the war would change women's societal roles: "I tell you, my inquiring friend, there's great hope for this world. Women will win! Give them a little more time and the added strength they'll develop out of this war and they'll begin to control things in a serious way."
And powerful she was. Not only did Wonder Woman become the third-longest running comic book in history—behind the goliaths of Superman and Batman—Marston's character directly influenced the feminist movement. Wonder Woman's super powers came from her special Amazon ability to transfer the enormous amount of mental energy into physical strength. In 1972, Gloria Steinem launched Ms. magazine with a larger than life version of Wonder Woman gracing the cover.
Marston died prematurely in 1947 from skin cancer after only six years of Wonder Woman. Other writers have since taken the character in different directions, rendering her a more stereotypical female heroine. Nonetheless, Wonder Woman remains a touchstone of popular culture, a symbol of feminism and an enduring piece of psychology history.
Nick Joyce is with the Archives of the History of American Psychology at the University of Akron.
Bunn, G.C. (1997). "The lie detector, Wonder Woman and liberty: The life and work of William Moulton Marston." History of the Human Sciences, 10, 91–119.
Richard, O. (1942). Our Women are Our Future. Family Circle Magazine.
Marston, W. (1943). Why 100,000,000 Americans read comics. The American Scholar, 13, 35–44.
Tate, C. The stereotypical (Wonder) woman. (2008). In R.S. Rosenberg (Ed.). The Psychology of Superheroes (pp. 147–162). Benbella: Dallas.