The subtle feminism at the heart of America’s fairy tale

Slate’s Meghan O’Rourke has a fascinating review of two  recent biographies of Frank Baum, creator of Oz:

If Oz and its sequels are shaped by Baum’s sharp eye for the theater of commerce, they are also shaped by his wishful revisions of social conflict. Notably, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz offered a paean to strong women at a moment when suffragettes were agitating for the vote. The book’s hero-protagonist, obviously, is a girl. In Kansas, her lively laugh repeatedly startles her worn-down aunt. In Oz, she effortlessly (and intuitively) kills the evil witches subjugating the natives. Indeed, all of Oz’s strongest figures are women—Glinda, the Good Witch of the South; the Good Witch of the North (not in the film); and the two Wicked Witches.

Baum, who publicly supported women’s right to vote, 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. One can imagine Baum winking on the page at his wife and mother-in-law. In his own life, Maud was the strong, practical one who kept things running. By comparison, he must have seemed the feckless humbug, trying one endeavor after another before succeeding as an author.

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