Wonder Woman's Unexpected Connection To The Birth Control Movement
Since the first edition of Wonder Woman hit stands in 1941, readers have been touting the comic as a feminist masterpiece. In the decades since, the world's most popular female superhero has become a icon for justice, truth, and equality, but long before women's rights activists took her up as a symbol of their movements, the movements themselves — including the birth control movement — actually helped inspire Wonder Woman.
After her introduction to the comic book world, a press release about Wonder Woman and her creator, William Moulton Marston, explained the female superhero was conceived "to set up a standard among children and young people of strong, free, courageous womanhood; to combat the idea that women are inferior to men, and to inspire girls to self-confidence and achievement in athletics, occupations and professions monopolized by men [...] the only hope for civilization is the greater freedom, development and equality of women in all fields of human activity.” According to the creator himself, Wonder Woman was his own form of "psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.”
So how did Marston come to create one of the most empowering, inspiring female comic book heroes of all time? Thanks to the women in his life, and the causes that mattered most to them.
By now, it's no secret that Wonder Woman's creator was a man, but for decades, the fact that William Moulton Marston was so closely connected to many of the women's movements of the early 20th century was hidden from the public. A famous psychologist with three different college degrees, Marston lived a full and colorful life. Not only did he create the Wonder Woman comics, but he wrote several books, tried his hand at silent movies, and even found success as an inventor. In the 1920s, Marston created the systolic blood pressure test, an early prototype of what would eventually become the lie detector test.
Even more interesting than his professional achievements was Marston's unconventional domestic life. Not only did he marry his childhood sweetheart and frequent (though mostly uncredited) research collaborator, Sadie Elizabeth Holloway, but Marston had another live-in life partner with whom the couple carried on a polyamorous relationship with. While Marston and Holloway worked to support the family — four children, two by each woman — it was their secret partner who took on the role of housewife and primary caregiver. For years, she lived in and cared for the Marston home, all the while hiding her true relationship with Marston from the world.
That woman was Olive Byrne, the niece of Margaret Sanger, a celebrated birth control activist, sex educator, and the founder of the American Birth Control League, which later became Planned Parenthood.
A fierce feminist and tireless social activist who committed her life to protecting women and liberating them from the chains of unwanted motherhood, Margaret Sanger was a somewhat mythical figure in the life of Wonder Woman's creator long before she was the aunt of Marston's eventual lover. With the help of her sister, Olive's mother Ethel Byrne, and activist Fania Mindell, Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in the United States in 1916. The Brooklyn center became the first of its kind to offer family planning and contraceptive services to women, and led to the arrest of both Sanger and her sister. Marston followed Sanger's controversial career, attended her talks, and frequently read her writing for years before falling for the activist's niece, Olive. As it turns out, both women would serve as important inspirations for the eventual creation of Wonder Woman.
A former student and research assistant of Marston's, Olive Byrne met the comic book creator in 1925, nearly 20 years before Wonder Woman's first appearance. Though largely hidden from the public, it was their relationship that shaped some of the most iconic aspects of Wonder Woman's character, including her signature gold cuffs. Like the famed superhero, Byrne wore a pair of large bracelets on her wrists that Marston used to model Wonder Woman's own set of indestructible ones off of. In fact, having those bracelets bound by a man actually served as Wonder Woman's greatest weakness in Marston's early comics, and not by accident either.
"A chained woman inspired the title of Sanger’s 1928 book, Motherhood in Bondage, a compilation of some of the thousands of letters she had received from women begging her for information about birth control, she described the letters as ‘the confessions of enslaved mothers,'" explains historian Jill Lepore in her fascinating book, The Secret History of Wonder Woman. According to Lepore, Marston was thinking of Sanger's book, one of his personal favorite feminist reads, not to mention one written by his lover's aunt, when creating Wonder Woman and the many plots in which she finds herself chained, tied down, or otherwise bound. "When Marston created Wonder Woman, in 1941, he drew on Sanger’s legacy and inspiration."
Marston had been fascinated with the women's movement ever since 1911, when British suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst spoke at Harvard and ignited in the creator an interest in feminist causes. But was his hidden relationship with Byrne and his adoration of Sanger that truly shaped the creation of Wonder Woman. Even the controversial use of bondage throughout the comics directly connects back to Marston's secret relationship with Bryne, and his fascination with the birth control movement lead by her aunt.
"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," Lepore's book explains. According to the historian, Wonder Woman's creator was "powerfully influenced by the suffrage, feminism and birth control movements. And each of those movements had used chains as a centerpiece of its iconography."
For nearly eight decades, Wonder Woman has served as a symbol for a variety of feminist causes, but it was actually those very causes that inspired the heroine's very own creation. As Lepore so perfect explains in her book, “The fight for women’s rights hasn’t come in waves. Wonder Woman was a product of the suffragist, feminist, and birth control movements of the 1900s and 1910s and became a source of the women’s liberation and feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s. The fight for women’s rights has been a river, wending.”
The only question is: where will that fight, and its fearless icon Wonder Woman, take us next?