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Women & Girls in The Wizard of Oz

The International L. Frank Baum & All Things Oz Historical Foundation held a fundraiser in August 2014 in connection with the house in Syracuse, New York, that belonged to L. Frank Baum’s sister, Harriet Baum Neal. This house was where Baum met his future wife, Maud Gage. Pro-life feminist Carol Crossed, who is the president of the Board of Directors of the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum, gave a talk at the fundraiser on Maud Gage and her mother Matilda Joslyn Gage, both first wave feminists, and their influence on Baum and the Oz books. That talk, abridged and edited, is reproduced here.

Just as the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum memorializes the birth of one of America’s greatest heroines, the Baum House memorializes the birth of another monumental mover of our history: the relationship of Frank Baum and Maud Gage. For without the Gages, Frank Baum’s most lauded novels, the Oz series, may never have come to fruition. And without Baum, the Gages would not have had such a lasting legacy of feminist influence. It is only fitting that the Baum house be the location not where Frank Baum himself was born or grew up, but where he met his other half, his inspiration, and his strength.

Maud and her mother, Matilda Joslyn Gage, were first wave feminists—they struggled for gender equity in a man’s world, for rights that we take for granted today, like the right to vote, to own property, and the right to education. First wave feminists like the Gages, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton recognized that all humans, slave or free, born or unborn, male or female, were equal in value and deserved human dignity.

Matilda was a force to be reckoned with. She joined the women’s movement in 1852 when the second women’s rights convention came to Syracuse. It was there she met Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. For years, the three of them worked side by side, founding and running the National Woman Suffrage Association and co-editing the first three volumes of The History of Woman Suffrage. These three women were radical for their time, and they relied on each other as both co-activists and as friends.

But Anthony and Stanton were willing to make sacrifices for their cause that Matilda Joslyn Gage wasn’t able to stomach. Their focus solely on suffrage opened doors to a broad range of women, from free love advocate Victoria Woodhull to Christian women who, for instance, wanted to use their vote to enact tougher laws for temperance. Most of the suffragist activists were going to do whatever it took to have a voice in government, including aligning themselves with those they disagreed with on religion and other issues.

Matilda Joslyn Gage, however, wasn’t about to waver, and for that reason she’s been cast aside in history. While Anthony and Stanton’s legacies were carried on via the 19th Amendment and Anthony’s face proudly engraved on the dollar coin, few Americans recognize Matilda’s name at all. But this isn’t to say she didn’t leave a legacy or have a powerful impact on society—not at all. A prolific writer, she authored pamphlets about courageous women and penned her masterpiece book, Woman, Church, and State, a text that would still be radical today.

Though she wanted to be a doctor, Matilda never had the opportunity to pursue her dreams—women in those days didn’t earn medical degrees. Like all of us, she wanted more for her children, particularly her youngest child, Maud. Maud was bright, practical, hardworking, and according to her college peers, lively—a trait that got her into trouble in school. Outnumbered five to one by the boys at Cornell University, girls were often subject to teasing, bullying, and vicious gossip. The torment was worse for a young woman like Maud who was not only “lively,” but had a well-known radical feminist for a mother, which incited either mockery or anger from her male peers. Still, Maud persevered, working toward a career as a doctor or a lawyer as per her mother’s wishes.

Maud showed exceptional promise—so when she told her mother she wanted to marry a poor actor and give up her degree and her career, her mother was, of course, appalled. It was only when Maud demonstrated her own strength that Matilda laughed and recognized a lesson that we are all still learning today: feminism is not about valuing career over family. We have the capability to strive for both.

It didn’t take long for Matilda to realize that Maud had made a worthwhile choice in life partner, despite Frank Baum’s severe shortcomings. He wrote a scathing editorial disparaging Native Americans, despite Matilda’s strong affinity with the Haudenosaunee Indians. He was a poor money-manager and businessman. But he adored his wife, valued her for her intellect and her poise, and took the back seat in their marriage. Their wedding ceremony eschewed traditional values of female obedience in favor of equality and justice. Maud took over the family finances, made the decisions, and was the most adequate pundit of Frank’s writing. They shared a passionate marriage, with “few quarrels”, according to Frank’s twenty-five year wedding anniversary invitation. Even better, he was willing to let his radical mother-in-law live with them for several months out of every year!

Matilda’s presence in the Baum household proved to be an inspiration for Frank, himself, as a writer, and for the Oz series as a whole. It was she who introduced the couple to a blending of Buddhism and Hinduism that served as the foundation for the yellow-brick road. And it was she who chastised society for its hatred of witches, which Frank incorporated into his Oz tales as both protagonists and antagonists. It was Matilda who told Frank, “Now you are a good writer and I advise you to try. If you could get up a series of adventures or a Dakota blizzard … or maybe bring in a cyclone from North Dakota.” And it was Matilda’s staunch feminism that can be thanked for Dorothy, a girl, as the main character in a story about adventure.

Whether Frank Baum was a feminist before he met Maud and her mother Matilda is difficult to say, but he was undoubtedly an ally of the women’s rights movement after he met them. In a newspaper editorial, he wrote that men who weren’t allies of early feminism were “selfish, opinionated, conceited, or unjust—and perhaps all four combined.” He served as the secretary for the Aberdeen Women’s Suffrage Club and urged his peers to vote for women’s suffrage.

His most long-lasting and influential act within the women’s rights movement was not the editorial letters or his work as secretary, but his writing of the Oz series. Baum claimed that his books weren’t meant to be political—but whether they were meant to be political or not, their impact certainly was. Feminists have long argued that “the personal is political,” that our everyday lives cannot be separated from the greater picture of reality. Much like the Victorian Sunday Salons, at which many suffragists led discussions on philosophy and culture, literature was a way of consciousness-raising. It opens minds to new possibilities, to worlds unseen, and can be a way of connecting with characters similar to ourselves in a way that validates our own experiences. So although Baum claimed to not have any intention of subverting society through his children’s books, he opened fantastical doors to his young readers that his wife and mother-in-law were seeking to open in reality.

Baum created fictional female characters that are well-rounded, diverse, and unshakably human. Dorothy, the title protagonist for the Oz series, is not only strong, brave, and resourceful, but kind and had periodic moments of weakness. She, like Matilda and Maud, wants something more than her sheltered life. She longs for adventure and new experiences. She explores a world populated by other strong women, modeled after a feminist utopia of Matilda’s imagination, and they don’t fit stereotypes. Baum’s wicked witch, while indomitable and powerful, exhibits fear, a reminder that even those who seem formidable have a softer side. And the good witch, while wise and kind, doesn’t know all the answers—she is not an all-knowing entity without flaw. Baum created good characters with flaws and evil characters to whom the reader could be sympathetic. The women in his tale are different from one another and were multi-dimensional.

Baum created a main character who grows and develops—but not because she needs to change, but because she needs the opportunity to explore