Where do our heroes come from? At times, the easiest way to think about the brave characters we see in our favorite stories is that they are flawless versions of ourselves. They’re fearless, bold, and incredibly precise in their timing. Even when they make mistakes, they still manage to save the world in the end. They are not people per se, but values and traits we hope to have. Our heroes are a reflection of who we are and try to become each day.
One superhero who is enjoying newfound notoriety this year is Wonder Woman. The Amazonian warrior princess has garnered a new generation of fans through the origin story portrayed in Patty Jenkins’ film. But before the 2017 summer blockbuster, before even the seventies’ television show with Lynda Carter, Diana Prince was a hero in her own right through the comics created by William Moulton Marston, who wrote under the pen name of Charles Moulton and was inspired by two important women in his life. An upcoming movie titled Professor Marston and the Wonder Women takes us into the middle of the unconventional relationship between Marston, his wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston, and Olive Byrne.
In 1925, Olive Byrne met Marston at Tufts University, where she was his student. While he was teaching and doing research in Psychology, Marston had already worked as a lawyer and was known to be an inventor. In fact, he created one of the prototypes for the lie detector machine, though it’s debatable whether his contraption ever really worked. The relationship between the professor and the student quickly evolved on both a professional level, when Byrne became his research assistant, and on a personal level when they started a sexual and emotional relationship. Yet there’s a piece of this puzzle missing. What was Elizabeth’s part in all this?
Olive went to live with the Marstons, and both she and Elizabeth had children in the following years. But what was the nature of their relationship? Well, it’s all up for discussion and speculation. There is no actual record or statement that goes into detail to explain whether this was a polygamous or polyamorous relationship. When Pete Marston, son of William and Elizabeth, was asked about it, he said he didn’t know, since the adults had their part of the house and the children had theirs. However, he did shed light on the fact that William and Elizabeth would go to work while Olive became the housewife who would take care of the children. After William died in 1947, the two women continued to live together for the rest of their lives.
We can’t judge the three of them for wanting to keep that part of their lives separate. Polyamory might be more accepted today, but it’s still far from being mainstream. However, there’s plenty of reason to believe that both Olive and Elizabeth were incredibly progressive for their time. The former came from a long line of progressives, being that her mother Ethel Byrne and aunt Margaret Sanger were early advocates for birth control and even opened a clinic in 1916. The latter had been one of the three women in her graduating class from Law School, as well as one of the very few women to continue onwards in academia at the time.
Now that the film is coming out, plenty of people have their comments and opinions regarding the portrayal of the three main characters. Angela Robinson, the writer and director of Professor Marston and the Wonder Women talked to Vulture Magazine of how she came about creating the story shown in the movie.
“I felt like I kind of went on my own journey, discovering, trying to do detective work, and what I came to was that the Marstons were these wonderful people with a lot of love in their life. I was especially struck by the fact that Elizabeth and Olive lived together for 38 years after Marston died.”
Actually, both Elizabeth and Olive are more likely to have lived together for 43 years, since Marston died in 1947 and Olive passed away in 1990. There are accounts explaining that Elizabeth was also interned at the same hospital when her life companion died. Whatever the nature of their relationship, we cannot pretend that there was no significant connection between the two women. Whether we don’t want to impose our modern context on them or are just afraid of wanting to admit that they might’ve been more open to love than we are, there’s plenty we can learn from this triad relationship.
In fact, there’s a chance that Elizabeth, Olive, and William did not want to be public about their relationship because of what that could mean for all of them. It’s likely that they would’ve lost their jobs, making it impossible for any of them to make ends meet in supporting the household. Their contributions to science and academia would’ve also been discarded.
In fact, even Wonder Woman, the hero Marston created in the image of Elizabeth and Olive, suffered changes as did other comic book characters after psychiatrist Fredric Wertham wrote a book called Seduction of the Innocent. According to Wertham, comic books presented young people with terrible ideas regarding sexuality and violence, as well as different concepts on femininity and masculinity. One of the precepts that resulted from the hearings given by the psychiatrist to congress in 1954 was:
“The treatment of love-romance stories shall emphasize the value of the home and the sanctity of marriage.”
So perhaps we’ll never know what really happened between Elizabeth, Olive, and William, but Robinson’s movie is an interesting perspective, one that implies that the secrecy was not based on shame or embarrassment but on attempting to protect their home from outside scrutiny. As the director explained:
“We have all this contemporary language to describe what the Marstons were doing, like poly and kink and BDSM. But they didn’t have that language then. Lesbian was barely an identity at the time. The word had just been created in that usage.”
What we do know to be true is that these three people lived a remarkable life together, and from their relationship they brought to life one of the most iconic characters from modern storytelling. Wonder Woman is not just a hero to little girls. She is someone who anyone can look up to. She is strong and compassionate. And, unlike her peers, she isn’t trying to bring more destruction but, instead, enforce ideas of peace and understanding.