Who Was Wonder Woman 1?
Long-ago LAW alumna Elizabeth Marston was the muse
who gave us a superheroine
By Marguerite Lamb
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
|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
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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