“What the munchkins want to know is, are you a good witch or a bad witch?”
Who could forget the scene from the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz, when the beautiful Glinda floats into Oz in a bubble and poses this question to a startled, newly-arrived Dorothy.
Judy Garland, as Dorothy, replies, “I’m not a witch at all. Witches are old and ugly.” To which the Munchkins respond with their distinctive high-pitched tittering. We, the viewers, are soon in on the joke. The beautiful Glinda is herself a witch.
For most of us, it’s not difficult to picture a good witch. We close our eyes and imagine Billie Burke, clad in a sparkly tiara and yards of shiny pink taffeta, a beatific smile on her face. We remember her gentle message to Dorothy—that Dorothy has held the power to get herself home all along.
What We're Reading This WeekGet recommendations for the greatest books around straight to your inbox every week.
So, it’s surprising to discover that prior to the publication of L. Frank Baum’s book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900, there was no such thing as a “Good Witch.” A witch was evil by definition, in league with the Devil. For centuries, women were accused of practicing witchcraft and were cruelly persecuted and often burned at the stake. By the Baum’s time, the late 19th century, the active persecution of witches had died out, but the superstitions about black magic-wielding, Satanically-possessed, broomstick-riding crones continued unabated.
Older women, women with dangerous ideas, single women who lived alone, midwives and those women skilled in the healing arts? All might be looked upon with fear and suspicion. Unattractive, dangerous, and of course, female. That was a witch.
So a good witch? Beautiful, wise, and just? This was a radical invention—and it was Baum’s. But where did L. Frank Baum—high school dropout, dilettante theater man, and traveling salesman—come up with such an unusual idea? The answer is that it was not his idea alone.
In fact, the man who wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was in close contact with one of the most radical feminist thinkers of her time—Matilda Joslyn Gage. She was a scholar of the scandalous history of persecuting women for witchcraft, and she was Frank’s mother-in-law.
In 1893, after a lifetime of working for women’s suffrage, Gage published her magnum opus, a work called Women, Church, and State. In her book, the audacious Gage dared to directly condemn one of society’s most powerful and unimpeachable institutions, the Christian Church. She directly pointed a finger at the church’s practices, methodically laying out a historical argument that patriarchal practices institutionalized in the church were the fundamental and central cause of women’s oppression in western society. Gage was not attacking Christianity itself; she believed that the church’s practices were reflections of society’s misogyny.
To Gage, there was no better evidence of the church’s hostility to women’s advancement than the centuries of persecution of women for the “crime” of witchcraft. “If for ‘witches’, we read ‘women’” Gage wrote in Women, Church, and State, “we gain a fuller understanding of the cruelties inflicted by the church upon this portion of humanity.” Gage stipulated that in the pre-Christian era, the word witch had held a different meaning: wise woman. Labeling wise women as witches suppressed women’s access to education, to invention, and ultimately, to equality.
The world of the late 19th century was not yet fully ready to hear Matilda Joslyn Gage’s message. While she gained praise from illustrious figures such as Victoria Woodhull and Leo Tolstoy, her ideas were too radical to gain widespread traction. But there was one man who was evidently listening—L. Frank Baum. In the Land of Oz, Baum created a place where witches can be a force for good, and where women wield power to promote justice.
Through Baum’s fantasy world for children, Gage’s forward-thinking ideas found a foothold. And while the 19th century might not have been quite ready for her message, in the 21st century, Matilda Joslyn Gage and her ideas are ripe for rediscovering.
Featured image: Getty Images; Author Photo: © Ted Catanzaro