top of page

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 the potential in herself. Dorothy, a young girl, doesn’t realize her own strength until she ends up having experiences that challenge her. Inspired by the feminist women in his life, Baum knew that girls and women throughout the world were capable of more than they were given the chance to demonstrate. In a world like Oz, women have the space to be themselves, to be complicated and messy. They don’t fit into a mold.

But Oz wasn’t just for women, but for men as well. Feminism was never about improving the condition of women at the expense of men but realizing that the same society that told women they shouldn’t be bold and have careers was the same society that told men not to be timid and stay at home. Baum defied cultural constructs of his day—he was a mild man with no business acumen. He took the back seat to his wife. He worked as an actor; he was expressive and enjoyed dressing up in costumes. While Maud was the strict parent who enforced order and structure, Baum was sympathetic. He was known to sneak food to the children after Maud had sent them to bed without food for misbehaving. Just as much as Matilda and Maud sought opportunities so that they could express themselves freely, Baum sought a world in which he, too, was able to be himself. Oz was that place.

Like the suffragists, Dorothy challenges the men she is around to become more nurturing. Suffragists like temperance leader Frances Willard sought not to attain equal rights for women to enter the bars and drink too but to bring men back into the home with the family. They did not want to become like men in all ways, but for men to become a little more like women. Dorothy challenges the scarecrow to recognize that he does have a brain and that it can be used for the common good. She challenges the lion to recognize that he does have courage—not just bravado, but courage to be compassionate and change the world. She challenges the Tin Man to recognize that he does have a heart, a heart to love everyone equally.

It is not just the characters that empower women and girls, but the world itself. Many early feminists began their social justice work in the abolitionist movement, working against a system in which people worked without pay. Women, like Susan B. Anthony who was a teacher, worked but received only 25 percent of her male counterpart’s pay. Like slaves, they had no voice in government and had limited freedoms. Married women in the 1800s could not own property. Their inherited wealth, and if they worked, their income went straight to their husbands. Matilda Joslyn Gage and first wave feminists knew firsthand the impact that financial inequality had on daily life. So it is no surprise that in the feminist utopia of Oz, people lived without money—there was no economic hierarchy.

Better yet, Baum’s Oz is just as much reality as Kansas is, and Dorothy is able to transition between them. Baum realized the sacrifices that Maud had made in marrying him, foregoing her own education and career in favor of marriage and children, so he dreamed of a place in which women weren’t forced to make those decisions. First wave feminists knew that women deserved better than an either-or scenario in life. Like women then and now, Dorothy feels intensely the push-pull of loving the adventure that was the yellow brick road while continually wanting to go back to her family in Kansas.

So why Kansas? Why not a blizzard in South Dakota, like Maud suggested? Kansas was and still is the nation’s hotbed of social justice activism, giving rise to such figures as anti-temperance campaigner Carrie Nation. Christian reformers who only 25 years ago flocked by the hundreds to Wichita to protest abortion clinics were following in the footsteps of Free Methodist Anna Witteman, who rescued young girls from the sex trade that went hand in hand with Kansas saloons. Kansas was the staging ground for abolitionist John Brown. Susan B. Anthony’s brother Merritt moved to Kansas and became part of Brown’s crusade to free the slaves. Both he and Susan’s other brother Daniel were part of the early settlers who moved there to influence through their vote whether Kansas would be a free state or a slave state. More importantly, in 1857, Kansas was the first state in the Union to grant women voting rights in municipal elections. After all, strong and courageous pioneer women were the backbone of the state that tamed a barren landscape only fit for cattle and the men who rustled them. The Kansas state flower, the sunflower, became the suffrage symbol throughout the campaign to win women the vote.

For Baum, Dorothy going home to Kansas meant returning to the multiple kinds of social ills that went beyond Aunt Em and domestic life. Early feminists knew that all people deserved to live in a world of justice, nondiscrimination, and nonviolence. These values were the key to true social equality, so were they incorporated in Baum’s Oz? To some extent, yes.

Oz is a world of justice: bad actions usually have bad results. Wicked witches meet their demise, and those who did good are rewarded in the end. More importantly though, it is a world of nondiscrimination and of social equity. Oz is a world of unique individuals—flying monkeys, munchkins, a live saw-horse, a talking scarecrow. They are widely diverse and yet treated as equals. All people (or non-people) are valuable and have something to contribute. And when the Scarecrow is asked if he’s unusual, he responds, “Not more so than yourself. Everything in life is unusual until you get accustomed to it.” It is a subtle reminder that regardless of our appearances, we all have dignity and worth.

Baum doesn’t gloss over people’s differences, nor does he harp on them. Their differences are what make them unique and what shape their experiences, but ultimately it is not those differences that define them. The Scarecrow is unique more because he doesn’t have a brain than because he’s made of straw. Readers have the opportunity to understand that each of us have something to contribute and that we shouldn’t discriminate based on appearance or identity.

But did Baum exemplify nonviolence? That question is more complicated. In an early review, the New York Times wrote that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz “does not dwell upon killing and deeds of violence,” despite being an engaging adventure story. And compared to the gory, blood-filled folk tales of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson, that analysis may be fair. And yet, Dorothy and her friends kill more than 100 characters throughout the series. Her house lands on the Wicked Witch of the East and the Land of Oz celebrates her death by singing and dancing triumphantly, lauding Dorothy as their hero.

But this death isn’t enough: the Wizard of Oz asks Dorothy to kill another witch if she wants to get back to Kansas. “But I cannot!” Dorothy exclaims, “I never killed anything willingly… I am sure I do not want to kill anybody, even to see Aunt Em again.”

But when our confused heroine realizes the effect that water has on the witch, Dorothy purposely douses her. In other words, Dorothy resorts to using violence for her own benefit—a moral that early American feminists would not have supported. Violence was a way of holding power and controlling others. It was not a way to protect freedom and equality, but a method of enforcing dominance and equality. Suffragists would have believed that women can and should get ahead without oppressing others. This is why the suffragists not only opposed slavery, but also unanimously opposed abortion: a violent method of getting ahead at the expense of another human being.

Susan B. Anthony’s newspaper The Revolution’s policy, stated in its inaugural edition, was opposition to both standing armies and advertisements for abortion. The military and destroying the preborn were accommodations to a man’s world, the kind of patriarchal world that used violence to solve human problems.

So even though Frank Baum created a world heavily inspired by his radical feminist wife and mother-in-law, one in which both women and men were free to be themselves, he created a world still heavily influenced by the world he actually lived in: one that promoted violence as a solution.

Over a century after Baum’s text, we are still struggling with some of the same core issues that early feminists of the 19th century were working against. Women today are still forced to choose between family and career. Men are still criticized for being “too emotional” or “weak.” Some within the feminist movement are willing to gain rights for women at the expense of others, forgetting that all of us are equal in value and deserve human dignity. They are straying from the core tenets of justice, nondiscrimination, and nonviolence, in favor of independent gain.

What we need to do is return to our roots in a new wave of feminism, called the fourth wave. This is the idea that all people, by virtue of their human dignity, have a right to live without violence from conception to natural death. It is a value set put forth by first wave feminists like Matilda Joslyn Gage and Susan B. Anthony, and a value set that is rarely upheld in our time.

These women were not only radical and revolutionary for their time, but they are radical and revolutionary for today. They were not single-minded in their approach to equality and social justice but sought freedom for all people, working for the rights of other unemancipated segments of the population. They supported abolitionism, child labor laws, worker and immigrant rights, and the rights of the unborn.

Similarly, fourth wave feminists of today progress beyond justice for women to include justice based on class, race, ability, and development. We have moved beyond terms like “reproductive justice” to a broader “inclusive justice” that stands against all forms of violence, including war, the death penalty, and abortion. We believe, as our first wave feminist foremothers do, that all humans deserve human rights.

We would be wise to walk in the footsteps of Frank Baum and learn as much as we can from these women and to remember that while there’s no place like home, there can be a place like Oz.


Disclaimer: The views presented in the Rehumanize Blog do not necessarily represent the views of all members, contributors, or donors. We exist to present a forum for discussion within the Consistent Life Ethic, to promote discourse and present an opportunity for peer review and dialogue.

bottom of page