Professor Marston

Wonder Woman creator began fighting men's rights activists 90 years ago

Contributed by
Oct 12, 2017

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women successfully explores the complex relationship dynamics between Wonder Woman creator Dr. William Marston and his muses/partners Elizabeth Marston and Olive Byrne. But director Angela Robinson only had so much run time, so her film omits some details about the professor’s brand of feminism that are, depressingly, still relevant today.

Marston wrote extensively about his beliefs promoting women’s rights, often incorporating it into his psychology lectures at Tufts and American Universities and academic essays, which Robinson's film explores as the foundation of the Wonder Woman comic’s philosophy. However, though Wonder Woman as a character has seen a recent cinematic resurgence, Marston also wrote on another topic that’s recently seen a boom in popularity: men's rights activism.

Marston argued against the backwards politics of men's rights at the movement’s beginnings. In 1929, he published a paper called "Why Men Are Organizing to Fight Female Dominance" in direct response to the burgeoning MRA movement in Vienna. The World’s League for the Rights of Men, as the organization was called, had extended an invitation to the "downtrodden males of America" who were the 'victims' of alimony judgements. Marston, writing against claims that the United States - or anywhere in the world for that matter - was "under woman's rule," rebutted with the reality of women's economic situation.

One of the arguments made by Marston in his anti-MRA treatise is that women were (are) economically disenfranchised and prevented from financial independence by the world's (men's) prejudices. That's why many so-called "career women," he argued, were stuck in low-paying jobs like nurses, secretaries, and stenographers. Expecting women to simply support themselves in the late ‘20s after a divorce when wage disparity was laughably large was the kind of sexist hypocrisy Marston would go on to lampoon in Wonder Woman.

 

When Marston wasn’t the writer of the comic book, as in All Star Comics #11, in which Wonder Woman was allowed into the Justice Society of America but also asked to be their secretary, the irony stings. With Marston at the helm of Wonder Woman’s solo adventures (those issued in the '40s before his death), the irony is more humorous. One issue features Wonder Woman’s alter-ego Diana Prince stonewalled by a man who says that "this is far too complicated for any woman's brain - that is, any woman besides Wonder Woman." This is the same interplay between Marston’s idealistic feminism and his realistic critique of the patriarchy that is found throughout his work. It is the undeniable power of Wonder Woman smothered by an America that still sees women as inferior. As in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, this interplay can often turn psycho-sexual - even when discussing something as seemingly dry as alimony.

In Sensation Comics #9, Steve Rogers chains Diana Prince to a kitchen stove, after which she points out his barbarism to his face. The bondage is real and metaphorical. Marston was an undeniably kinky guy, but he justified this psychologically by theorizing about the different ways men and women express power. This extended past the dom-sub sexual relationship of ropes and whips and into romantic institutions. Explaining why the MRA organizers have such a sense of entitlement when it comes to alimony, he wrote that to one of these men, “paying money to a woman who is now of no use to him must always seem to a man like paying taxes on foreclosed land.”

Ownership and dominance were important traits to Marston, who proposed that people’s ideal state was one of submission to loving authority. That authority might be a pure Amazonian hero or your wife, but the point was that men are chaotic and ultimately destructive while women used power more responsibly. That's why Marston diagnosed the key problem with marriage is "that the man [owns] the woman and not the woman the man." This idea of a "loving authority" is inserted verbatim into Wonder Woman #28 (said by both an Amazonian correctional facility officer and Diana’s mother Hippolyta), is featured in the film, and comes paraphrased in "Why Men Are Organizing to Fight Female Dominance," both imploring its readers to consider a world led by those with great power but our best interests at heart.

These progressive, if colorful, beliefs are just as exciting and novel as Marston’s unofficial group marriage. Marston thought he could use Wonder Woman to change the world more effectively than his 'serious' writing, so he peppered his comic with self-plagiarism and his utopian aspirations. Addressing inequality at face value, then transitioning those arguments into one’s artistic endeavors is, especially now, something from which pop culture creators cannot escape. It's unfortunately all too rare that they address S&M and alimony with the same level of seriousness.