Wonder Woman is more than a comic strip character. She was one brilliant man’s effort to change the world……for the better. Her “creator” was a dude named William Moulton Marston and he was one smart dude: he earned three PhDs by the time he was 27 at Harvard University, including law and psychology. He was a philosopher, newspaper columnist and writer, as well as an educator. During his tenure at Harvard, Marston had come to the conclusion that women were naturally superior to men, both morally and in terms of skill. Further, he believed that women’s tendency toward loving submission was far preferable to masculine authority, which he viewed as toxic and violent. His unusual life is chronicled in a beautifully-realized movie opening on October 13 called Professor Marston and the Wonder Women. It’s even earned a 91% rating from Rotten Tomatoes!
Marston published a book in 1928 while teaching at Harvard called The Emotions of Normal People. In it, he outlined the core principles of DISC. The book was based on years of clinical experimentation and analysis, and included many of the DISC hallmarks still used today: the use of axes, theories on behavior being linked to environment, and behavioral patterns he referred to as Dominance (D), Inducement (I), Submission (S), and Compliance (C). Three years later, Marston continued his work with DISC by publishing the book Integrative Psychology. In it, he discussed links between emotion, personality, motivation, learning, and recall—connections that have all become key components of modern DISC tests.
He showed that what motivates each individual underlies all their beliefs, attitudes, and “Emotions of Normal People.”“Dominance,” he said, “is the drive to overcome opposing forces perceived inferior to the strength of self. Influence (Marston used the term Inducement) is the attempt to ally forces to ourselves through persuasive means. Steadiness (Marston used the term Submission) shows the acquiescence of the self to a perceived allied force; and Compliance describes the subordination of the self to a hostile force of superior strength.” He posited that if only humanity would understand the way that other humans react to the way control is given or taken from them, their knowledge of themselves could literally end all conflict, especially if Submission and Inducement were used, rather than Dominance and Compliance.
Such themes were apparent in the early Wonder Woman stories, where the all-women utopia of Paradise Island was accompanied by the Reform Island penal colony, where enemies of the Amazons were not punished, but rehabilitated. Additionally, the goal of the much-vaunted bondage imagery that pervaded Marston’s stories was two-fold: first, to serve as a metaphor for the oppression women suffer in patriarchal society, and second, to add an erotic element so that young readers found themselves associating submission with love, through what Marston called “sex love training.” Pretty wild stuff for the times, yet Marston’s intellect made it more acceptable to the world of education and academia. But he strove to get his message out to the public, so when he lost his teaching job, he endeavored to write about his observations for a general audience.
As a newspaper columnist, he wrote about the burgeoning Men’s Rights Movement, and became well-known for writing a number of influential journal articles in support of the early movement towards women’s rights. A self-proclaimed feminist, Marston was an outspoken advocate for birth control, voting rights, and career advancement for women. He also became an educational adviser to DC Comics (different than the movie’s story) and, as a consultant, came up with the idea of a female superhero. He created the idea for Wonder Woman in 1941 as an embodiment of his thinking about women in society. He wrote the strip for 6 years and then prematurely succumbed to cancer in 1947. A great loss for American thinkers.
Marston argued in his writings that most psychological problems came from active versus passive and antagonistic versus favorable relationships. In a favorable relationship, the active participant induced the passive participant into pleasant submission. he thought that this provided a double dose of pleasantness attached to the process of learning. Whereas harsh dominance led to forced compliance, which didn’t work as well as inducement leading to willing submission. He believed that women were best suited to use inducement into submission, compared to men who relied upon dominance. That’s why he concluded that women were better suited to be leaders in a highly functional society. He wrote: “there isn’t enough love in the male organism to run this planet peacefully.” The rule of dominant men led society to violence and strife. In contrast, female rule was humanity’s best chance for peace.
Marston’s work continues to influence us and has been enhanced by continuous behavioral research—all because his best friend picked it up and made a profile system out of it for a book he was writing on self help. Later other researchers took the Marston DISC model and created psychometric instruments. Research around these assessments eventually lead to DISC personality tests that are used widely in business. A free online version of DiSC personality profile test can be found here.
Marston was a remarkable and very original thinker who ended up making a long-lasting contribution about how we view women, as well as ourselves. To learn more about this man and his writings, it’s worth your time to head to the movie theaters and see Professor Marston and the Wonder Women.