“As they passed the rows of houses they saw through the open doors that men were sweeping and dusting and washing dishes, while the women sat around in groups, gossiping and laughing.

‘What has happened?’ the Scarecrow asked a sad-looking man with a bushy beard, who wore an apron and was wheeling a baby carriage along the sidewalk.

‘Why, we’ve have a revolution, your Majesty – as you ought to know very well,’ replied the man; ‘and since you went away the women have been running things to suit themselves. I’m glad you have decided to come back and restore order, for doing housework and minding the children is wearing out the strength of every man in the Emerald City.’

‘Hm!’ said the Scarecrow, thoughtfully. ‘If it is such hard work as you say, how did the women manage it so easily?’

‘I really do not know,’ replied the man, with a deep sign. ‘Perhaps the women are made of cast-iron.”

-L. Frank Baum; The Marvelous Land of Oz

The patchwork girl of Oz  by L. Frank Baum; illustrated by John R. Neill (1913)
The patchwork girl of Oz by L. Frank Baum; illustrated by John R. Neill (1913)

The release of the blockbuster film Oz: The Great and Powerful earlier this month has sparked a renewed interest in the life and work of L. Frank Baum. Best known for his children’s masterpiece The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and the 1939 screen adaptation starring Judy Garland, Baum authored more than a dozen different novels set in the magical Land of Oz, which took its name from the bottom drawer of the file cabinet in Baum’s office, labeled for files beginning with the letters “O-Z”.

Of course Baum was much more than just a juvenile fiction author. As we celebrate women’s history month, it should be noted that the cause of women’s suffrage was supported and advanced by prominent male figures of the era. Baum, who publicly lobbied for women’s right to vote and served as the secretary of his town’s Woman’s Suffrage Club, was deeply affected by his beloved, spirited wife, Maud, and her mother, Matilda, an eminent feminist who collaborated with Susan B. Anthony and publicized the idea that many “witches” were really freethinking women ahead of their time. In Oz, Baum offers a similarly corrective vision: When Dorothy first meets a witch, the Witch of the North, she says, “I thought all witches were wicked.” “Oh, no, that is a great mistake,” replies the Witch of the North. In sequels, Oz’s true ruler is discovered; it turns out to be a girl named Ozma, who spent her youth under a spell – one that turned her into a hapless boy.

Baum’s contact with suffragists of his day seems to have inspired much of his second Oz story, The Marvelous Land of Oz. In this story, General Jinjur leads the girls and women of Oz, armed with knitting needles, in a revolt; they succeed, and make the men do the household chores. Jinjur proves to be an incompetent ruler, and a female who advocates gender equality is ultimately placed on the throne. His Edith Van Dyne stories, including the Aunt Jane’s NiecesThe Flying Girl and its sequel, and his girl sleuth Josie O’Gorman from The Bluebird Books, depict girls and young women engaging in traditionally masculine activities.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its sequels were obviously shaped by Baum’s wishful revisions of social conflict and are now almost universally acknowledged to be some of the earliest feminist children’s books in America, because of Dorothy and similar characters: girls who are enterprising, ingenious, adventurous, or imposingly self-reliant.

Located within Special Collections at Virginia Tech are several Baum titles that can be found by searching the University’s online catalog, Addison. Among the results are two first editions: The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1913) and The Enchanted Island of Yew (1903). You are invited to visit us and examine these texts to discover more about the inspiring heroines of Oz.

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