One of the best stories of an empowered, sexually-liberated woman and wife is found not in, but behind, the pages of comic books.
Wonder Woman - sexy and liberated - but not monogamous?
Elizabeth "Sadie" Holloway Marston (1893-1993) married William Marston in 1915. Elizabeth had already completed a Bachelor's degree in psychology from Mt. Holyoke, and then attended Law School at Boston University. Elizabeth worked throughout her life, in the executive administration of a life insurance company, and as an editor of law journals, and lecturer in psychology and law. So where's the sex? The kink? The comic books?
Elizabeth's husband was a psychologist, and inventor of some of the technology behind the polygraph, or lie detector, that measured physiological responses as a way to detect falsehoods. William also once gave an influential interview to one of his female students, Olive, describing that he saw comic books as something important, valuable and new. That interview led to William getting attention from comic book publishers. William later developed an idea for a new kind of comic book superhero, one who would use powers of love, truth and honesty to prevail. At Elizabeth's recommendation, her husband proposed the character as a female, and Wonder Woman (originally known as "Suprema") was born.
Growing up, I had a thing for Wonder Woman. I'm partial to brunettes, and Linda Carter in the '70s was the best thing on television, as far as I was concerned. Funnily enough, my wife (a brunette) says that she loved Linda Carter's role as well, because in the days of Farrah Fawcett, there weren't a lot of brown-haired women being put forth as beautiful, strong and sexy. Wonder Woman became a favorite of my wife, and many other dark-haired young women, who wanted to see themselves as beautiful, without the help of Clairol's Nice n Easy Honey Blonde hair color.
But, imagine my surprise when I found out that Wonder Woman's character had a kinky, sexy, past. No, not on that island of Amazonian women that Wonder Woman hailed from, but in the home of William and Elizabeth Marston. With Elizabeth's consent and support, William brought his former student, Olive Byrne, into their home, where she lived with Elizabeth and William as their wife. William had children with both Olive and Elizabeth, and he and Elizabeth formally adopted his children by Olive.
Elizabeth and William Marston - photo credit - www.bu.edu
William was a strong supporter of feminist ideals, and female empowerment. In many of the early Wonder Woman comic books, Wonder Woman encourages women to stand up for themselves, to learn to fight, and be strong, so they don't have to be scared, or depend on men. William also described that while female nature was inherently submissive, the world might be a better place if women ruled the world, and that men love to submit to a strong, powerful and alluring woman.
What sorts of submission went on in the Marston bedroom? Surprisingly, details of this unconventional relationship have never been publicly revealed, and even more surprisingly, the family's privacy has been appropriately respected. Even as they worked and lived in very socially conservative times and places, in the Northeast United States, New York and Boston, this nonmonogamous, non-vanilla marriage was regarded as pleasant and refreshing, though somewhat naïve by peers.
Early Wonder Woman comics were filled with depictions of women in bondage, bound, stripped, gagged and tortured. Wonder Woman ended up strapped-down and tied up in almost every episode. But she always broke free. Wonder Woman's appearance, statuesque, brunette, strong and wearing thick, manacle-like bracelets, is supposedly modeled after Olive. So, it's not hard to imagine that perhaps Olive, who didn't work, and stayed home caring for the family's children, was a "bottom," or submissive, in the relationship. But then, who was the top?
Elizabeth was an independent, take-no-shit woman throughout her life. A delightful article from her alma mater, Boston University, describes her granddaughter saying that Elizabeth often told her, "Angel child, never, never be beholden to any man, ever." Elizabeth was already independent and educated, when she married William. And in fact, though her husband got a lot of glories, his stability seems to have been a bit questionable. He hopped from job to job, and actually was unemployed for many years, the family completely supported by Elizabeth.
William died in 1947, and Elizabeth continued to work until 1958, supporting herself, Olive, and their children, and putting all of their children through college. Olive passed away in the late '90s, and Elizabeth herself lived to be a 100, passing away in 1993. It is this part of the story that almost brings tears to my eyes. This powerful, strong-willed and sexy woman, never bowed down to society, to gender-stereotypes, or to social expectations of marriage, and was the matriarch, caregiver and breadwinner for her entire family, for nearly 50 years. Wow. Now that's wonderful. And she did all this decades before feminism, sexual liberation or equal rights were even on the horizon.
Woman to woman bondage in Wonder Woman - credit - www.bestcomicbookcovers.com
Was Elizabeth gay? Bisexual? Was she a top? A bottom or a switch? Did she live with Olive as a wife, a lover, a submissive, or merely a sister? Did Elizabeth dominate both Olive and her husband? Or was Elizabeth one of those powerful, dominant personalities who gain some measure of peace and momentary escape by being submissive, to Olive or to William during sex? Was sadomasochistic play a part of their lives, or merely a part of William's fantasy?
These are marvelous unanswered questions. And they're provocative questions (which should probably remain unanswered), not for the salacious details, but to celebrate the life and success of a wondrously admirable and empowered woman. Elizabeth, with all this delightful kink, is a marvelous role model for the ability to be a sexually self-determining wife, mother, lover, leader, lawyer, psychologist, executive, writer and teacher. You too can live a life of marital and sexual nonconformity, but still be successful, loving, and respected. William might have invented Wonder Woman, and might even have made the character look like Olive, but it was Elizabeth "Sadie" Holloway Marston who lived the life of Wonder Woman, not by fighting crime, but by being strong, unbroken, loving, and true to herself and loved ones.