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Who Was Wonder Woman 1?

Long-ago LAW alumna Elizabeth Marston was the muse who gave us a superheroine

By Marguerite Lamb

comic book illustration of Wonder Woman
 

She compels honesty from evildoers with her Lasso of Truth. She stops bullets with her impenetrable bracelets and speeding trains with her bare hands. She flies faster than sound in her invisible plane. Diana, Amazon princess — the goddess Aphrodite may have made her a wonder, but it was Boston University alumna Elizabeth Holloway Marston (LAW'18) who made her a woman.

Wonder Woman, America's foremost superheroine, was conceived at the dawn of the Second World War — the worst of times for humanity, but the best of times for comic book heroes. In 1938, two teenagers from Cleveland, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, had introduced the world to a strongman in red cape and blue tights, sparking a pop-culture craze for costumed crusaders. Superman blazed a path for scores of wartime superheroes. First came the general do-gooders: Batman, Hawkman, Green Lantern, The Flash. Then came the superpatriots — Captain America and Captain Flag, Minute Man and the Star Spangled Kid — he-men created specifically to bring the Axis enemies to their knees. By 1941, comic books were selling at a clip of fifteen million monthly; in 1944, they accounted for a quarter of all magazines shipped to U.S. servicemen abroad.

Amidst this comics mania, Elizabeth's husband, William Moulton Marston, a psychologist already famous for inventing the polygraph (forerunner to the magic lasso), struck upon an idea for a new kind of superhero, one who would triumph not with fists or firepower, but with love. "Fine," said Elizabeth. "But make her a woman."

From her lips to his drawing board.

Wonder Woman made her début in December 1941 in All Star Comics, a bimonthly with strips by different artists. Perhaps because comics were widely viewed as juvenile, if not disreputable, William, a Harvard-educated academic, adopted Charles Moulton as his nom de plume. The first episode features Diana rescuing U.S. Army Intelligence officer Steve Trevor, whose plane has crashed on uncharted Paradise Island. Aphrodite and Athena, the ruling goddesses of the Amazons, command that the "strongest and wisest" she-warrior return Steve to America, and there remain to defend the "last citadel of democracy, and of equal rights for women." Diana wins the honor, besting her sisters in an Amazon Olympics, and so begins her close to sixty years and counting of fighting for "liberty and freedom for all womankind."

William Moulton Marston hoists aloft his bride, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, during a 1916 summer vacation in New Hampshire. Two years later they would earn law degrees on opposite sides of the Charles River.Archival photographs and original Wonder Woman material courtesy of Moulton "Pete" Marston.
William Moulton Marston hoists aloft his bride, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, during a 1916 summer vacation in New Hampshire. Two years later they would earn law degrees on opposite sides of the Charles River.Archival photographs and original Wonder Woman material courtesy of Moulton "Pete" Marston.  
 

TNT and L.L.B.

When it came time to cast his fearless heroine, William Marston had a ready mold. Elizabeth (who died in 1993 at age 100) was, says daughter Olive Ann LaMotte, "a small package of dynamite."

In an era when few women earned higher degrees, Elizabeth received three, starting in 1915 with an A.B. in psychology from Mount Holyoke College. Next came law school. William, then her fiancé, was headed for Harvard Law, but the school excluded women and would until 1950, funneling them instead to its sister school, Radcliffe. Elizabeth rejected the program as "lovely law for ladies" and opted for Boston University.

"She approached her father for support," recounts her granddaughter, Susan Grupposo. "He told her: 'Absolutely not. As long as I have money to keep you in aprons, you can stay home with your mother.'

"Undeterred, Gram peddled cookbooks to the local ladies' clubs. She needed $100 for her tuition, and by the end of the summer she had it. She married Grandfather that September, but still she paid her own way."

Elizabeth earned her L.L.B. degree in 1918, one of three women to graduate from the School of Law that year. "I finished the [Massachusetts Bar] exam in nothing flat and had to go out and sit on the stairs waiting for Bill Marston and another Harvard man . . . to finish," she later wrote.

From a Polymath: the Polygraph

Next, she crossed the Charles River to work in Harvard's psychology department, where her husband had embarked on a doctorate. "My dad developed the theory of a deception test based on systolic blood pressure in the Harvard psychology labs after a suggestion from mom that when she got mad or excited, her blood pressure seemed to climb," according to their son, Moulton "Pete" Marston. "She helped him, and his thesis was on the use of blood pressure measurements to test for deception and other emotional reactions." The couple's investigation of the physiological symptoms of deception led William to the invention of the polygraph and a Ph.D. and Elizabeth to a Radcliffe master's degree, both in 1921.

That year, Elizabeth punched in to work and didn't punch out for thirty-five years — despite social mores in some circles that said the office was fit for neither wife nor mother. (More than half a century before it was common, Elizabeth waited till age thirty-five to have her first baby, then returned to work.) She indexed the documents of the first fourteen Congresses, lectured on law, ethics, and psychology at American and New York Universities, served as an editor for Encyclopaedia Brittanica and McCall's magazine, and cowrote a textbook, Integrative Psychology, with her husband and C. Daly King. She even did a stint as a traveling soap saleswoman. All this at a time when teachers who married were expected to hand in their chalk, and wives needed their husbands' permission to work as operators for Ma Bell.

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