Sunday, March 11, 2018

Professor Marston and the real Wonder Women

We recently watched Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017), written and directed by Angela Robinson. At the end of the film we had two main thoughts:

First, that it was amazing that this movie ever got made. After all, it's a film "based on a true story" that features disgraced psychology professor William Marston, the man who, while living in a ménage-à-trois with his wife Elizabeth and a former student, Olive Byrne, created the superhero Wonder Woman. (The byline pseudonym Charles Moulton was a combination of the middle names of Max Charles Gaines, the comic's publisher, and William Moulton Marston.)

Wonder Woman became a huge hit during and just after World War II, at one time outselling Superman. Aimed ostensibly at 12-year-olds, the comics featured an eye-popping mixture of:
  • kick-ass feminism
  • anti-fascism
  • bondage
  • more bondage
  • even more bondage
  • yet more bondage
  • still more bondage
  • and homoeroticism

Our second thought after seeing Professor Marston was that the film, entertaining as it is, simplifies and at times falsifies the even more startling true story it's based on. In the discussion that follows I'm relying mainly on Harvard historian Jill Lepore's fascinating New Yorker article "The Last Amazon," later expanded into the book The Secret History of Wonder Woman, as well as some of her other articles and interviews. [1]

Josette Frank. In the movie's frame story, set in 1945, Marston (Luke Evans) is being questioned by Josette Frank (Connie Britton) from the Child Study Association of America, who is portrayed as an anti-comics crusader.

This frame story a little too obviously enables Marston to explain to both her and us the recurrent themes and underlying ideology of the Wonder Woman comics. In the film Frank's inquisitorial questioning of Marston (which never happened in real life) is juxtaposed with images of comics being burned in front of a jeering crowd of children and adults, suggesting that Frank and her organization are whipping up hate. But those images wrongly conflate Frank with figures such as Sterling North or Frederic Wertham, whose infamous book, Seduction of the Innocent, would not be published until a decade later.

Josette Frank; image from Yereth Rosen,

In the 1940s Frank, as staff advisor of the Children's Book Committee of the Child Study Association, was helping to guide the association's much more measured approach to comics. In 1944 she published an article in a special issue of the Journal of Educational Sociology devoted to "The Comics as an Educational Medium." In her paper "What's in the Comics?," Frank takes a far from censorious approach even towards those comics of which she disapproves. "Magazines that exploit the female form or picture amorous embraces with the obvious purpose of stimulating sex interests are certainly not suitable for children," she writes. But she goes on to say,
We cannot choose children's comics for them, since their choices will be guided by their own particular interests. But we can help them to evaluate differences in quality and worth, remembering, however, that taste and discrimination develop slowly . . . The road to wholesome balance lies not in forbidding or confiscating, not in bargaining or cajoling, but rather in broadening the child's real experiences. [2]
In the article Frank notes that "here is a form of reading which children take without coaxing"; children read comics with "avidity and absorption." She was sufficiently convinced of the potentially positive role of comics that she agreed to serve on the editorial advisory board of Gaines' All-American Publications.

Besides Frank, Gaines recruited several other psychology experts for his board. After reading an article bylined "Olive Richard" in Family Circle magazine in which Marston extolled the imaginative value of comics for children, Gaines approached him for the advisory board as well. ("Olive Richard" was the pseudonym of Marston's lover Olive Byrne, who had become a staff writer for Family Circle; "Richard" was her pet name for Marston.) Marston agreed to serve as a consultant, but after he started writing Wonder Woman the other members of the board asked him to step down. In the film Marston has to pursue a busy Gaines around the offices of his comics company to pitch his Wonder Woman idea; in reality, he had special and direct access to Gaines.

The advisory board was mainly seen by Gaines as a means to deflect criticism; he had little intention of actually taking the board members' advice when it threatened to interfere with sales. In a series of memos to Gaines, Josette Frank did deplore Wonder Woman's skimpy costume and the recurrent themes of bondage. When it eventually became clear that Gaines and Marston would ignore her repeated suggestions, she resigned from the advisory board.

But she was hardly leading comic-burning marches in the streets, and to make that association is deeply unfair. According to her granddaughter Yereth Rosen, the real-life Josette Frank was a feminist, a progressive (and a Progressive), worked for social justice, and was inclusive long before that term gained currency (see "Reel Grandma versus Real Grandma"). As Rosen notes, in 1998 the prestigious Children's Book Award was renamed the Josette Frank Award in her grandmother's honor. [3]

The lie detector. In the film, a flashback to the late 1920s shows Marston and his acerbic wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston (Rebecca Hall) working to develop a lie detector with a student from Marston's Radcliffe (actually Tufts) psychology class, Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote). Olive's flustered responses to Marston's insistent questions about her feelings during a sorority "Baby Party" (a real thing) gives Elizabeth the insight that lying might be correlated with increased heart rate and thus systolic blood pressure.

Only, the real Marston had published papers on the link between blood pressure and emotion a decade previously. The insight had nothing to do with Olive Byrne (although it may still have been Elizabeth's idea.)

Marston administers a polygraph test to a secretary in his law firm, 1921; image from

And although Marston was an enthusiastic promoter of the polygraph, even today polygraph tests remain notoriously unreliable, and are still not admissible in court except under extraordinary circumstances. In the film the lie detector is shown as unerringly revealing the truth of the characters' feelings for one another, but the American Psychological Association has stated that "there is no evidence that any pattern of physiological reactions is unique to deception" and that "there is little basis for the validity of polygraph tests." [4]

In the film, Frank points out that Marston has incorporated the lie detector into the Wonder Woman comics:

Actually, in the Marston-written comics Wonder Woman's Magic Lasso compels obedience, not just truth-telling—although of course those bound by the Magic Lasso could be ordered to tell the truth as well.

By the way, Marston's Baby Party observations seem to have inspired a storyline in Wonder Woman. In the chapter "Love" in his book Emotions of Normal People (1928), Marston reported that during the Baby Party first-year students had to dress like babies and were punished if they disobeyed the older girls. [5] In the film during the party Olive is forced to spank another student:

In the Wonder Woman story "Grown-Down Land" from 1942, modern parents (named, in case readers didn't get the point, Frank and Selfa Modern), are shown as too self-involved to give their children the attention and care they need. In protest, the Modern children refuse to wake up, and Wonder Woman enters their dream world, "Grown-Down Land." There, while a crowd of babies look on, the children punish her:

Olive Byrne. In Angela Robinson's film Olive tells the Marstons that she has been raised by nuns in a convent school. She has a wallflower's fascination with theater, playacting and costume, but she is portrayed as shy and naïve.

But the real Olive Byrne was a bit more colorful. For one thing, her uncles had a drag queen act on the vaudeville circuit, The Giddy Girls, and as a teenager she had gone on tour with them, singing in the chorus. Her mother was the feminist activist and birth-control hunger striker Ethel Byrne; birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger was her aunt. To Robinson's credit, both women are mentioned, but not Olive's active involvement as the birth-control connection for her fellow Tufts College students. She gave them referrals to Sanger's clinic in New York, and worked there herself during semester breaks; in the film she says "I don't know her very well."

Olive wore her hair cropped short, often dressed like a boy, and was voted the "wittiest, cleverest, and most distinctive student" in her graduating class, according to Lepore. [6] It would be hard to see the film's quiet and apparently conventional Olive being voted the most distinctive student.

The origins of the romantic relationship among the three in the film also changes what seems to have happened historically. Marston is shown as being infatuated with Olive, which Elizabeth recognizes immediately (and initially responds to with jealousy and anger). But Olive is portrayed as having a crush on Elizabeth, and acting on it by kissing her. Eventually Elizabeth agrees to a threesome, and their ménage becomes established.

But in real life the threesome seems to have begun without Elizabeth. During the academic year 1925-26, while Marston was teaching at Tufts in Boston, Elizabeth was staying in New York. She had taken a job as the managing editor of the psychology journal Child Study. (The journal was published by the Child Study Association, and Josette Frank was one of the editors.) At Tufts that fall Olive, a senior, took Marston's Experimental Psychology class, and possibly attended a clinic he held for students with "adjustment problems." In the spring Olive took three more classes with Marston, getting A's each time (the four A's she earned in Marston's classes were the only academic A's she received at Tufts). It seems likely that Marston and Olive began an affair during this time.

Olive Byrne (second from left) with members of the Alpha Omicron Pi sorority at Tufts, 1923 (detail). 
Image from the Tufts University Digital Collections and Archive, reprinted in The Secret History of Wonder Woman, p. 106

After Olive graduated in June 1926 and Marston's appointment was not renewed, possibly because their affair had become known, Marston brought Olive to live with him and Elizabeth in Connecticut. According to Lepore's Secret History, Elizabeth may not have been enthusiastic about the arrangement, at least initially. [7]

Marjorie Wilkes Huntley. This was not the first time that Marston had begun an affair while separated from Elizabeth, nor the first time he had introduced his lover into his household and marriage. In 1918, while in the army, he had been sent to Camp Upton, New York (Elizabeth remained at their home in Cambridge, Massachusetts). Marston was assigned to treat soldiers suffering from shell shock, what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder. Huntley, a suffragist activist and a divorcée, was the camp librarian.

It's probable that over the six months Marston and Huntley were together at Camp Upton they began an affair. When Marston was discharged from the army in May 1919 he invited Huntley to visit him and his wife in Cambridge. That summer she did so; she later said that she, Marston and Elizabeth "became a threesome," and her visit is the most likely time for that to have happened. [8] Huntley would continue to be a recurring presence in their lives until Marston's death in 1947. She is absent from the film.

Left to right: Marjorie Huntley, Byrne Holloway Marston (son of Olive), Olive Ann Marston (daughter of Elizabeth), Pete Marston (son of Elizabeth), William Moulton Marston, Olive Byrne, Donn Marston (son of Olive), and Elizabeth Holloway Marston in 1947

The social context of free love. The film portrays the mutual love of Marston, Elizabeth and Olive as occurring in a purely personal context, but the three were actually self-conscious participants in a social movement that had been reshaping sexual relations for decades. Utopian experiments such as the Oneida Community, feminists and suffrage leaders such as Victoria Woodhull, and leftist activists such as Emma Goldman questioned the state-sanctioned institution of marriage and explored other erotic arrangements beyond the monogamous heterosexual dyad.

There were often spiritualist leanings in American advocates of free love. Marston's aunt Carolyn Marston Keatley was a believer in Levi Dowling's Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ, which predicted that a new age of peace, harmony and love was dawning. Keatley held sexual seminars in her Boston apartment in 1925 and -26 that Marston, Olive, Huntley, and Elizabeth attended. According to notes of the meetings probably written by Huntley entitled "Wonder Woman: The Message of Love Binding," Keatley preached that the perfect "Love Unit" consisted of a "Love Leader," a "Mistress" or "Mother," and a "Love Girl." The categories seemed to be fluid; at one point the notes mention that women should "expose their create in males submission to them, the women mistresses or Love leaders, in order that they, the Mistresses, may submit in passion to the males."

The notes mention "Messenger Betty" (Marston called Elizabeth "Betty"), "messenger R" ("Richard" was Olive's pet name for Marston), and "the girl Zara" ("Zara" was the name given to Huntley by Marston and Elizabeth). Later, Elizabeth would say that "all the basic principles" of their "non-conformist" sexual lives were established "in the years 1925, 26, and 27 when a group of about ten people used to meet in Boston at Aunt Carolyn's apartment once a week." [9] That other people in the Marstons' circle were experimenting with nontraditional sexual arrangements is a dimension entirely absent from Robinson's film.

Despite its sometimes clunkily expository dialogue, Robinson's film is enjoyable on its own terms and has an appealing cast. But as I hope I've shown, the real story of Marston, Elizabeth, Olive, and Wonder Woman is far more complicated and interesting. Lepore's articles and books are fascinating reading, and make far stronger connections than does the film between Wonder Woman and the social and political movements that influenced her creation.

  1. Jill Lepore, "The Last Amazon: Wonder Woman Returns." New Yorker, 22 September 2014.; "The Surprising Origin Story of Wonder Woman," Smithsonian Magazine, October 2014.; "The Man Behind Wonder Woman Was Inspired By Both Suffragists and Centerfolds," interview with Terry Gross, Fresh Air, originally broadcast Oct. 27, 2014.; The Secret History of Wonder Woman. Scribe, 2014.
  2. Josette Frank, "What's in the Comics?" The Journal of Educational Sociology, vol. 18 no. 4, December 1944, pp. 214-222.
  3. Yereth Rosen, "Reel Grandma versus Real Grandma," Anchorage Press, Nov. 1, 2017.
  4. American Psychological Association, "The Truth About Lie Detectors (aka Polygraph Tests)." 2004.
  5. William Marston, Emotions of Normal People, International Library of Psychology, Philosophy and Scientific Method, Harcourt Brace and Company, 1928, pp. 299-300.
  6. The Secret History of Wonder Woman, p. 109.
  7. Secret History, p. 118.
  8. Secret History, p. 58.
  9. Secret History, pp. 118-119.


  1. Dear Pessimisissimo:

    Marston's life was as marvelously convoluted as his heroine's. Thanks for filling in those details, simplified and flattened in the movie, on your blog.

    For readers who enjoy comics more than biography, I recommend Wonder Woman Vol 1 from the DC Archives series. I'm pretty sure "Grown Down" is in it, as well as Velma's not so subtle desires for and devotion to Diana. It's out of print, with a hefty collector's price tag, so the local library or Interlibrary Loan are more reasonable options.

    M. Lapin

    1. Cher M. Lapin:

      Many thanks for your kind words, and for the recommendation of Wonder Woman Vol. 1 from the DC Archives series. I definitely want to read the original comics now!

      I understand, if I can't fully endorse, the filmmaker's need to simplify the story in order to streamline the narrative—for example, by the erasure of Marjorie Huntley or of Joye Hummel (who wrote many of the Wonder Woman stories between 1945 and 1947). But I understand far less the need to knowingly portray real people in a false light, as with Josette Frank. Or to invent incidents, such as a beating by a neighbor, that never happened. Weren't the lives of Marston, Elizabeth and Olive rich enough in incident already? And I think it fundamentally distorts their story to leave out the social and political movements for women's equality and sexual autonomy that shaped them, and that provide a richer context for Wonder Woman.

      As I say, we enjoyed the film despite its flaws. But my great hope is that it encourages people to read Lepore's astonishing book, and discover the real secret history of Wonder Woman.

      Many thanks for your comment!