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Some Notes on William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman, and Loving D/s

Version 1
First posted here on September 24, 2022

This was originally part of my Marginalia on the Old Guard, Leather Traditions, and BDSM History article written in 2006. I moved the content to its own page in September 2022.

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Dr. William Moulton Marston (1893 – 1947) is known today for being the inventor of the lie detector (or least one of its major contributors), the founder of the DiSC theory of psychology, an early practioner of loving non-monogamy, and the creator of the super-heroine Wonder Woman.

Marston lived in what we would today call a polyamorous triad with his wife --- Elizabeth Holloway Marston --- and his lover --- Olive Byrne. They shared a household together with the children Marston sired with both ladies. (The married couple formerly adopted his children by Olive Byrne.) Sheldon Mayer, his editor at DC Comics, said that Marston had "a family relationship with a lot of women, yet it was male-dominated." After his death, Elizabeth and Olive continued to run the household together to the end. (Daniels)

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Psychological Theories

Marston's psychological theories anticipated beliefs and practices of the Leather and BDSM in later generations. Geoffrey C. Bunn wrote that Marston utilizes "the political and sexual connotations of dominance and submission" in his writing. (Daniels)

In his book Emotions of Normal People (1928), he sought to divide human behavior into four elementary behavior units: dominance, compliance, submission, and inducement. His four "emotions."Marston believed people behaved along two axes: 1) their peception of their environment as favourable or antagonistic, and 2) their response to their environment as active or passive. Depending on where they belonged along these two axis, ther behavor fell into one of four quadrants, each describing one of four "emotions" (which he meant to mean behavioral patterns):

  1. Dominance produces activity in an antagonistic environment
  2. Inducement produces activity in a favourable environment
  3. Submission produces passivity in a favourable environment
  4. Compliance produces passivity in an antagonistic environment.
A circle divided into quarters by two axis: antagonistic/favorable and active/passive.  The four quarters correspond to the four emotions

In addition, Marston examined how people with different emotions interacted: Dominance and Submission, Inducement and Compliance, Dominance and Compliance, etc., These intetactions are power relationships --- or what the Leather and BDSM communities recognize as "Power Exchanges."

This became the basis of the DISC-Theory. (In a later evolutions of the theory, the term Submission was replaced by Steadiness.)

After the publication of his book, Marston gravitated away from academic writing and toward the popular press. But his fascination with the four emotions continued to evolve:

  • Conducting a scientific study on a sorority hazing ritual at Jackson college, Marston noted that "the strongest and most pleasant captivation emotion was experienced during a struggle with girls who were trying to escape from their captivity." (Daniels)
  • In reviewing the 1923 film The Hunchback of Norte Dame, Marston concluded that one scene in which the film's heroine is whipped wearing only a chemise and with her hands bound behind her caused "a strong, disguised captivation emotion in the minds of the audience." (Daniels)
  • In Venus with us, a historical novel about Julius Caesar, Marston includes numerous erotic scene of bondage and submission. At one point he writes "His soul was lost in beautiful, palpitating dreams of serving her glorious womanhood forever .... Those wonderful feet!" and at another he writes "I've only been your slave a short time -- but I have a felling I'm going to like it!" (Daniels)
  • Marston believed that women were less susceptible to aggression and greed than men. He stated that America would become a matriarchy. In an interview in the New York Times, he predicted that "the next one hundred years will see the beginning of an American matriarchy -- a nation of Amazons in the psychological rather than physical sense." He added that "women would take over the rule of the country, politically and economically." (Daniels)
  • Marston wrote that "submission in love belongs to the man and not the woman." (Daniels)

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Wonder Woman

One of the many, many, many illustrations of Wonder Woman in bondage

William Moulton Marston was a keen observer of popular culture. After he wrote an article criticizing comics and their influence on young minds in 1941, All-American Comics editor Max C. Gaines invited him to offer his advice on ways to make comics more psychologically beneficial for young readers. This led Marston to develop Wonder Woman.

He signed his strip as Charles Moulton, a combination of his and Max Gaines' middle names.

Five months after her debut, Wonder Woman was rated a 40-to-1 favourite over her nearest male superhero rival in a readers' poll conducted by the publishers.

For Marston, Wonder Woman was not primarily a role model for girls, but the vehicle through which he would get young boys used to the idea of strong, dominating women. He believed that the next century would see the subjugation of men by women, and that, through domination, women would create a more loving society:

Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world. There isn't love enough in the male organism to run this planet peacefully. Woman's body contains twice as many love generating organs and endocrine mechanisms as the male. What woman lacks is the dominance or self assertive power to put over and enforce her love desires. I have given Wonder Woman this dominant force but have kept her loving, tender, maternal and feminine in every other way.

Marston was a fascinating character. He loved two women, fathered two children with both of them, and all seven lived as one big, happy family. Marston, despite (or because of?) his fantasies of a world ruled by dominating women, obviously enjoyed binding women -- and the thought of women binding each other:

Women are exciting for this one reason -- it is the secret of women's allure -- women enjoy submission, being bound. This I bring out in the Paradise Island sequences where the girls beg for chains and enjoy wearing them.

Virtually all "Moulton" Wonder Woman stories included a full-length Wonder Woman in an oversized bondage panel. In one 1948 story, there were no fewer than 75 panels depicting bondage.

I have developed elaborate ways of having Wonder Woman and other characters confined ... confinement to WW and the Amazons is just a sporting game, an actual enjoyment of being subdued.

This ... is the one truly great contribution of my Wonder Woman strip to moral education of the young. The only hope for peace is to teach people who are full of pep and unbound force to enjoy being bound

Only when the control of self by others is more pleasant than the unbound assertion of self in human relationships can we hope for a stable, peaceful human society. Giving to others, being controlled by them, submitting to other people cannot possibly be enjoyable without a strong erotic element.

Not surprising, Dr. Marston's famous creation was an expression of his theories, values, and proclivities:

  • His original name for Wonder Woman was going to be "Suprema." (Daniels) Supreme --- the root of that name --- can mean "highest in rank or authority." ("Suprema" sounds like the name of a professional domina.)
  • Marston's wife suggested and in many ways inspired the character of Wonder Woman but his lover Olive Bryne was most likely the physical model for Wonder Woman. For years she wore what she described as "ancient Arab 'protective' bracelets." (Might they have had more than a decorative or magical significance? And what did she mean to signify by the quotation marks around the word "protective?") In an interview with Dr. Marston that Olive Bryne conducted for Family Circle, he called her "my Wonder Woman" and explained that her bracelets were "the original inspiration for Wonder Woman's Amazon chain bands." (Byrne)
  • Wonder Woman comes from Paradise Island, a hidden utopia populated entirely by Amazon warriors who must permanently wear metal bracelets to "remind them of what happens to a girl when she lets a man conquer her." Dr. Marston elaborates: "The Amazons once surrendered to the charm of some handsome Greeks and ... [the] Greeks put them in chains of the Hitler type, beat them, and made them work like horses in the fields. Aphrodite, goddess of love, finally freed these unhappy girls. But she laid down the rule that they must never surrender to a man for any reason." (Bryne)
  • Wonder Woman loses her Amazon strength when her bracelets are weilded togther and not surprisingly bondage was a staple of all her early adventures. (Daniels)
  • When villains are captured in her laso, they are compelled to answer her questions truthfully. Marston explains "Her magic lasso is merely a symbol of feminine charm, allure, oomph, attraction every woman man uses that power on people of both sexes whom she wants to, influence or control in any way." (Bryne)
  • Unlike other comic book villians of the time who relied on thugs, bruts, and henchmen, many of Wonder Woman's villians had numerous slaves to do their evil bidding. (Daniels)
  • One of her most enduring phrases was "Suffering Sappho!" (Daniels)
  • Fredric Wertham, child psychiatrist and author of Seduction of the Innocent, criticized the amazing Amazon's adventures for their supposed "lesbian overtones." Suffering Sappho! (Daniels)
  • Marston's editor Sheldon Mayer felt that in Wonder Woman, Marston was "writing a feminist book but not for women" and that he was writing it for a "male audience." Marston explained that his character as "psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should ... rule the world" And later he adds that "What woman lacks is the dominance or self assertive power to put over and enforce her love desires. I have given Wonder Woman this dominant force but have kept her loving, tender, maternal and feminine in every other way." (Daniels) In the Family Circle he said "Wonder Woman satisfies the subconscious, elaborately disguised desire of males to be mastered by a woman who loves them." (Bryne) Wonder Woman did really appeal to boy readers: According to a customer survey, her readership was 90% male -- more than the male readership of Superman. (Jones, 211)

Wonder Woman Powerless   Wonder Woman presenting a workshop on bondage safety

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Appendix: Olive Richard Interviews Dr. Marston

Olive Byrne --- Dr. Marston's lover --- wrote articles for Family Circle under the name "Olive Richard." Often the articles were interviews with her lover.

Our Women Are Our Future
by Olive Richard
Family Circle, August 14, 1942

The war news had me down. I had just been to see a friend whose husband, a naval officer, was killed at Pearl Harbor. Going home, I bought a newspaper with a "Wake Up, America!" editorial spread all over the front page. The general drift of it seemed to be that the country is on the brink of ruin and that we'd better wake up or else. Well, I was awake to the danger, all right, but I couldn't think of anything more to do about it. I'd paid my income taxes, bought war stamps and bonds, volunteered up to my neck for every defense project, cut out sugar and all pleasure trips with the car, and made the decision that I would look awful but patriotic in my old clothes.

Then to cap it all I turned on the radio and out blared the voice of an expert war-news commentator telling us in 15 minutes of dismal prediction that we should prepare ourselves for much worse disasters than anything we had yet suffered. Women must do this and women must do that and women must be charming through it all. Usually some everyday incident comes up to stop one going through thought mazes of this kind, and it happened here. On the table where I was about to throw my hat with a Katherine Cornell gesture was a comics book with a brilliant-hand cover bearing the picture of a pretty girl in a scanty costume leaping aboard a racing motorboat.

A memory stirred; this must be the "daughter or the brain of Dr. William Moulton Marston, Family Circle psychologist" that I had seen recently in The Family Circle.

"Well," I thought, "If Marston is whipping up comics stories while Rome burns, there must be a reason." So, I clamped the hat on again and made tracks for Rye, New York.

The Doctor hadn't changed a bit. He was reading a comics magazine, which sport he relinquished with a chuckle and rose gallantly to his feet, a maneuver of major magnitude for this psychological Nero Wolfe. "Hello, hello, my Wonder Woman!" cried the mammoth heartily. "I was just reading about you in this magazine. You're prettier than your prototype in the story strip, and far more intellectual. Sit down and tell me all."

"I came to be told, and what's the idea of calling me Wonder Woman, and I don't feel like listening to any male sarcasm on account of I've heard too much already."

"Your bracelets," said the Doctor, taking up one thing at a time "-they're the original inspiration for Wonder Woman's Amazon chain bands. Wonder Woman's bracelets protect her against bullets in the wicked world of men. Here, see for yourself."

The picture was the same that I had seen at home. In the motorboat were several characters of definitely Teutonic cast shooting rifles and machine guns at the smiling girl. The bullets glanced harmlessly off the fair intruder's twin bracelets, which did closely resemble-astonishing coincidence!-the pair of ancient Arab "protective" bracelets that I have worn for years.

I opened the book to read, "This amazing girl, stronger than Hercules, more beautiful than Aphrodite," and so on, and I remembered that my sons had argued as to whether she could lick the whole Japanese army all at once or whether she'd have to take them a few thousand at a time. The Doctor beamed when I told him this and said, "Tint's right, the kids love her. Wonder Woman's quarterly magazine outsold all others"

"I know, I know. You'll be writing advertising next But I came here to ask you about the war. Women feel so helpless and depressed about it. I wish you'd answer one question for Family Circle readers: Will war ever end in this world; will men ever stop fighting?"

"Oh, yes. But not until women control men," he answered mildly.

"According to the Wonder Woman formula, I suppose?"

"That's it exactly!" The Doctor got up from his chair and began to pace the floor as he talked - a mannerism that betokens extreme interest and enthusiasm. "Wonder Woman, and the trend toward male acceptance of female love power which she represents, indicates that the first psychological step has actually been taken. Boys, young and old, satisfy their wish thoughts by reading comics. If they go crazy over Wonder Woman, it means they're longing for a beautiful, exciting girl who's stronger than they are. By their comics tastes ye shall know them! Tell me anybody's preference in story strips and I'll tell you his subconscious desires. These simple, highly imaginative picture stories satisfy longings that ordinary daily life thwarts and denies. Superman and the army of male comics characters who resemble him satisfy the simple desire to be stronger and more powerful than anybody else. Wonder Woman satisfies the subconscious, elaborately disguised desire of males to be mastered by a woman who loves them."

"Hold on" I interrupted. "That's nothing more than the reaction of a little boy to his mother. In this comic strip it must be the same childish feeling-a longing for a mother to protect them-and they'll probably get over it at adolescence."

"Ah, there's where you're wrong." The Doctor continued his pacing. "They don't get over it at any age. Normal men retain their childish longing for a woman to mother them. At adolescence a new desire is added. They want a girl to allure them. When you put these two together, you have the typical male yearning that Wonder Woman satisfies."

"Almost entirely based upon theory," I countered. "What if boys do like Wonder Woman they probably like strong men better. It's just the strength that fulfills their wishes. They like her despite the fact that she's a woman!"

Dr. Marston gave one of his rumbling whoops of laughter. "Theoretically you might be right. But factually you're quite wrong. A popularity survey was conducted recently among comics readers of all ages by the publisher who brings out Wonder Woman, Superman, and several other superpowerful story characters. Wonder Woman was the only female on the list, yet she corralled 80% of the votes. Even the publisher was surprised. But to a psychologist it's the ABC of subconscious wish fulfillment. The fact that both sexes are beginning to recognize the desire for the supremacy of strong and loving women is by far the most hopeful sign of the times."

"Suppose you're right," I said. "Suppose men do long for superwomen to take them over. And assume for the moment that these strong-arm babes are willing to undertake the job. What makes you think they can do it? Do you imagine that we females can develop muscles that big overnight?"

The big man ignores sarcasm when he has something to say that he considers important. "The one outstanding benefit to humanity from the first World War was the great increase in the strength of women-physical, economic, mental," he stated with conviction. "Women definitely emerged from a false, haremlike protection and began taking over men's work. Greatly to their own surprise they discovered that they were potentially as strong as men-in some ways stronger. Women have more emotional power than men, they have greater endurance and more resistance to disease they live longer, and they can endure pain far better. The moment women began doing things to develop their strength, it increased enormously.

With enthusiasm the psychologist expanded his thesis: "Women now fly heavy planes successfully, they help build planes, do mechanics' work. In England they've taken over a large share of all manual labor in fields and factories; they've taken over police and home defense duties. In China a corps of 200,000 women under the supreme command of Madame Chiang Kai-shek perform the dangerous function of saving lives and repairing damage after Japanese air raids. This huge female strong-arm squad is officered efficiently by 3,000 women. Here in this country we've started a Women's Auxiliary Army and Navy Corps that will do everything men soldiers and sailors do except the actual fighting. Prior to the first World War nobody believed that women could perform these feats of physical strength. But they're performing them now and thinking nothing of it. In this far worse war, women will develop still greater female power; by the end of the war that traditional description 'the weaker sex' will be a joke - it will cease to have any meaning."

"Your enthusiasm is a great build-up," I admitted. "I feel like Wonder Woman already. But when I leave your hypnotic presence I'll lose confidence in myself as most women do when they have to generate their own steam. They're used to regarding men as their superiors, and even if a gal is physically strong and able to earn her own living, she can't cave-woman the man she wants to control or buy him. Now, Wonder Woman has magic powers. You wouldn't claim, I suppose, that we ordinary mortals have any such fantastic weapons as bracelets that repel bullets or her magic lasso that compels whomever it binds to obey her commands?"

Seriously the Doctor responded, "Of course all women have those two powers. Wonder Woman is actually a dramatized symbol of her sex. She's true to life-true to the universal characteristics of women everywhere. Her magic lasso is merely a symbol of feminine charm, allure, oomph, attraction every woman man uses that power on people of both sexes whom she wants to, influence or control in any way. Instead of tossing a rope, the average woman tosses words, glances, gestures, laughter, and vivacious behavior. If her aim is accurate, she snares the attention of her would-be victim, man or woman, and proceeds to bind him or her with her charm."

"But the trouble is," I objected "that ordinary feminine charm is a bond that is easily broken."

The Doctor nodded. "You've a point there," he admitted. "But not a very sound - one. Woman's charm is the one bond that can be made strong enough to hold a man against all logic, common sense, or counterattack. The fact that many women fail to make strong enough lassos for themselves doesn't deprive the lasso material of its native magic. The only thing is, you have to use enough charm to overcome your captive's resistance."

"The chains that the Nazis forge on conquered people," I muttered, "seem a whole lot stronger than the bonds of personal charm!"

"Ah, they only seem that way," the oracle replied And he continued with an exposition of the upside-downness of popular thought. Chains of force are always broken sooner or later. No human being can put another's soul or spirit in bondage, only his body. And in the end the inner self triumphs over the outer; mind and personality win back their control over flesh. Nazi chains already are beginning to snap in "conquered" France, Holland, Belgium, Norway, Czechoslovakia, sabotage and killing of oppressors goes on increasingly. But the real turn of the tide will come when Hitler loses his persuasive charm control over the German people.

Dr. Marston reminded me that Hitler gained his initial power by stirring oratory and personal magnetism-the magic-lasso method-not by force. When he resorted to force in the famous beer cellar Putsch he failed miserably and spent a year in prison. Mussolini similarly achieved his dictatorship by the magic of his persuasive tongue, and now, when force and military ability are needed in place of persuasiveness and drama, Il Duce is on the skids. Churchill never won a military campaign in his life, prior to the present war, but his political oratory has always been outstanding and the power of his keen mind and prolific pen has been equaled by few modern writers. President Roosevelt has one of the most charming personalities in the world and be casts this magic lasso over the radio with unerring aim. Three times he has caught and bound with his charm a large majority of American voters. And the Doctor asks, "Can you doubt that Roosevelt's control over America is stronger than Hitler's over occupied France?"

"So men have magic lassos, then, as well as women," I remarked. "And your own verbal lariat seems to be roping me in today."

"But you mustn't let it hold you," he grinned. "Wonder Woman can break any rope or chain with which a mere man tries to bind her. She stays bound only as long as may be necessary to accomplish her good purpose-then tears off her man-made shackles and goes to work on the man!"

At this point I protested. "Women enjoy being bound by men; it's less work and more fun than keeping male captives secure. Girls like to get their man, then surrender to him."

"And what happens next?" prompted the psychologist. "The man loses interest completely. No man wants to be freed by the girl who has caught him and no man has the slightest interest in tying up a girl who holds out her hands to be bound. If he takes her as his property, that's a bad day for both of them. The man begins to use dominance, and that's acutely painful for the woman captive. Wonder Woman and her sister Amazons have to wear heavy bracelets to remind them of what happens to a girl when she lets a man conquer her. The Amazons once surrendered to the charm of some handsome Greeks and what a mess they got themselves into. The Greeks put them in chains of the Hitler type, beat them, and made them work like horses in the fields. Aphrodite, goddess of love, finally freed these unhappy girls. But she laid down the rule that they must never surrender to a man for any reason. I know of no better advice to give modern women than this rule that Aphrodite gave the Amazon girls."

Hastily the psychological giant added, "Of course, she may let the man think she's helpless. My Wonder Woman often lets herself be tied into a bundle with chains as big as your arm. But in the end she easily snaps the chains. Women can do lots of things by letting men think they're fettered when they're not."

"Oh, sure," I agreed. "Women do things like that constantly. Why, just this morning I got myself out of a strait jacket in Sing Sing prison. Then I tore out a section of the prison walls and jogged back to Child's in New York for a refreshing quaff of tea and toast. I often move our house about on the lot to catch the sun at its best, and-"

Dr. Marston's laughter reached apoplectic proportions and I was trying to remember if you give stimulants for red unconsciousness when he said with seeming irrelevance, "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. When women rule, there won't be any more because the girls won't want to waste time killing men. They'd rather have them alive; it's more fun from a feminine point of view."

"In all seriousness," he continued, "I regard that as the greatest - no, even more - as the only hope for permanent peace. And as a psychologist I'm convinced that the ever-increasing counterparts of Wonder Woman in real life will lead the way. More power to them! Let them keep their Amazon chain bands polished. And their magic lassos limbered up! Women are nature-endowed soldiers of Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, and theirs is the only conquering army to which men will permanently submit - not only without resentment or resistance or secret desires for revenge, but also with positive willingness and joy!"

At which moment I took wing and flew over the housetops to my little nest to spread joy among all the lucky males I could rope in with my magic-lariat charm.

Family Circle, August 14, 1942

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The Primary Source for this article

  • Wonder Woman: The Complete History by Les Daniels

Additional Sources

  • Bryne, Oliver (under the name Olive Richard) "Our Women Are Our Future" Family Circle August 14, 1942
  • Daniels, Les Wonder Woman: The Complete History (Chronicle Books, 2004)
  • Jones, Gerald, Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book (New York: Basic Books, 2004)
  • Marston, William Moulton, Emotions of Normal People (Taylor & Francis Ltd., 1999) [originally published 1928]

Additional Reading on Wonder Woman, Dr. Marston, Dr. Elizabeth Holloway Marston, and Oliver Bryne

I had already written and posted the original version of this article before the following books were published. Someday, I'd like to revise this article with the information in these books --- especially Jill Lapore's book which goes into far greater depth than the sources I used.

  • Lepore, Jill The Secret History of Wonder Woman (Vintage; Reprint edition, 2015)
    The definative book on the subject.
  • Langley, Travis (editor) Wonder Woman Psychology: Lassoing the Truth (Union Square & Co., 2017)
    This anthology of articles includes a fragment of an autobiographical sketch by Elizabeth Holloway Marston.
  • Alder, Ken The Lie Detectors: The History of an American Obsession (Free Press, 2007)
    Dr. Marston is sometimes credited as being the father of the lie detector. The truth is more complicated than that. There were other contributors to what became the modern lie detector. This book explains the history.
Three books that I recommend for additional reading.

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