Wonder Woman's origin story

Wonder Woman, the comic book character, has reached a personal milestone ... reason enough for the actress who played her on TV to talk with our Faith Salie. This story was originally broadcast on March 26, 2017:

It may be considered impolite to reveal a woman's age, but when it's this woman, turning 75 is a wonder!

Born in 1941, Wonder Woman (along with her predecessors Superman and Batman) are the only superheroes to be in continuous print since their debut.

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Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman in the 1970s TV series.

ABC

For many of us, though, it was TV's Lynda Carter who brought Wonder Woman to life.

As Salie said to Carter, "For a lot of people, when they think of Wonder Woman, they see you. How does it feel?"

"It's bizarre," Carter laughed. "It's humbling, honestly, particularly after all this time. I don't really think that I'm Wonder Woman, by the way!"

Carter says she got the role back in 1975 largely because she looked the part, which was both a blessing and (as one of the show's producers warned her) a curse: "'Oh, women are gonna be so jealous of you.' 

"Well, I said, 'Not a chance. They won't be, because I'm not playing her that way. I want women to want to be me, or be my best friend!'"

And it turns out, providing a role model was exactly the point in creating Wonder Woman way back in 1941.

In the face of growing concern that comics were too violent for children, DC Comics publisher Max Gaines turned to noted psychologist and author William Marston for help. As the story goes, Marston said, "What you need is a female superhero. She'll be essentially a pacifist. She'll fight for democracy, but she'll be fighting for equal rights for women. And her super powers will be love and truth and beauty."

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Vintage

As Harvard professor Jill Lepore, author of "The Secret History of Wonder Woman" (Vintage), explained, "Gaines was like, 'Yeah, well, maybe. I guess we could give that a shot.' He was very skeptical. And so that's always been Wonder Woman's origin story."

But perhaps the true inspiration behind Marston's fictional Wonder Woman were the real women in his life.

"What was hidden from the historical record was the whole Marston family story, and the women in his life that egged him on, and that created that commitment on Marston's part," said Lepore.

Those women were his wife, Elizabeth Holloway, and his student-turned-mistress, Olive Byrne. They all lived together, and raised four children under one roof.

And that was kept secret by the family: "For good reason, 'cause they had a sort of scandalous family life," said Lepore.

And get this: The aunt of Marston's mistress was famed feminist, birth control pioneer and Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger.

What's more, Marston was also influenced by the suffragist movement he witnessed as a Harvard student in the early 1900s.

"American suffragists chained themselves to the gates outside the White House, and Marston was really inspired by this," said Lepore, "by seeing these women and by hearing these stories."

No doubt that's why we see Wonder Woman breaking out of chains in so many of Marston's early comics.

"He says, 'She's gotta be chained up because she's an allegory for the emancipation of women, and so she has to be chained up so that she can break herself free,'" Lepore said. "No one ever rescues her; she rescues herself."

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DC Comics

And that golden lasso that magically forces villains to break down and tell the truth -- no lie, psychologist Marston was one of the early pioneers of lie detection.

And as for Wonder Woman's skirt …

"Actually, it's not a skirt," said DC Comics archivist Benjamin Le Clear, who takes even Wonder Woman's wardrobe seriously. "It looks like a skirt. It's actually culottes. There was a big debate about this!"

"Gosh. That's so not heroic," said Salie.

"Well, no, no, it's actually heroic. Elizabeth Holloway Marston, Mrs. Marston, said, 'She can't have a skirt. If she's a female superhero, a skirt's gonna end up over her head.'"

Whatever she was wearing, she was selling 2.5 million comics a month. But after Marston's death in 1947, other writers -- all male -- took over, and Wonder Woman became a little less wonderful.

Salie said, "The way that Wonder Woman has changed demonstrates what our culture was thinking women should be in each kind of era?"

"It's what I love about comic books, and really all art forms," said Le Clear. "They're mirrors on where we were in society."

It wasn't until 1972 when women's rights activist (and Wonder Woman fan) Gloria Steinem put her on the inaugural issue of Ms. Magazine that Wonder Woman got her star-spangled groove back.

And now, Wonder Woman is beating up the bad guys -- and box office records, as well. Her silver screen debut, starring Israeli actress Gal Gadot, was the biggest opening ever by a female director, Patti Jenkins.

WONDER WOMAN – Rise of the Warrior [Official Final Trailer] by Warner Bros. Pictures on YouTube

proof that after 75 years of heroics, Wonder Woman's real superpower is the power to inspire.

As Lynda Carter described her, "There is something about the character where in your creative mind for that time in your life where you pretended to be her, or whatever the situation was, that it felt like you could fly."

GALLERY: Wonder Woman through the years

       
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