News & Politics

Is the 'Wizard of Oz' a Feminist Tract?

The beloved tale has a fascinating history.

Photo Credit: Movieclips Trailers

“Does The Wonderful Wizard of Oz Have a Hidden Meaning?” That’s the title of a TED-Ed video from last year. Since I had written, years ago, a couple essays on Oz and American culture, the TED folks asked me to write a script for the video. I started with Henry Littlefield, a high school history teacher who, in 1963, used L. Frank Baum’s story to teach some of the difficult (and, for many students, boring) issues of the Gilded Age. Littlefield suggested that the Tin Woodman (no heart) represented the dehumanized industrial worker and the Scarecrow (no brain) stood for the wise but naïve midwestern farmer. The Cowardly Lion (no courage) was William Jennings Bryan, presidential candidate in 1896 who “roared” for the common folk but was afraid to endorse the economic programs that might have helped them. The Wicked Witch of the East was the eastern bankers and businessmen who controlled the common people (the Munchkins). The Yellow Brick Road was the gold standard, and Dorothy’s silver slippers (the 1939 MGM movie made them ruby red) stood for the coinage of silver, a big issue in the late nineteenth century. 

In the video, I told how Littlefield’s interpretation caught on, with other scholars adding their own allusions: Toto, Dorothy’s little dog, represented teetotalers, who were often part of the same reform voting bloc that included the silverites; the enslavement of the yellow Winkies (in the book, not in the movie) stood for President William McKinley’s refusal to grant immediate independence to the Philippines after the Spanish-American War; the Flying Monkeys were Native Americans; and so on. Several historians argued that, rather than criticizing industrial capitalism, Baum was actually celebrating the new urban consumer culture of the time. Like the man behind the curtain, the book could be different things to different people.

There is another correspondence that, to my knowledge, no one has noted. In “How Dorothy Saved the Scarecrow,” the book’s third chapter, Dorothy has just started on her journey toward the Emerald City when she meets Boq, “one of the richest Munchkins in the land,” a friendly and popular character who gives her supper and a place to sleep. As she prepares to leave the next morning, Boq warns her that “the country here is rich and pleasant, but you must pass through rough and dangerous places before you reach the end of your journey.”

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Boq was likely named for Edward William Bok (1863-1930), a Dutch-born editor and author who was near the peak of his popularity in 1900, when Baum published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Bok’s family came to the United States when he was six years old. They were poor—as a child, Bok gathered pieces of coal that had fallen from coal wagons along the streets of Brooklyn—but through hard work and integrity, Bok rose through the ranks of business, from “office boy” for Western Union to editor of Ladies’ Home Journal in 1889. Under his leadership, that magazine became the first in the United States to have a circulation of one million. Meanwhile, Bok himself became prominent and prosperous.

Bok wrote about his rags-to-riches life in The Americanization of Edward Bok (1920), an autobiography that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921. But he had already acquired a reputation as a Horatio Alger figure, one of America’s Gilded Age success stories, by the 1890s. He shared his secrets for success in Successward: A Young Man’s Book for Young Men, first published 1895. The book was itself a success, going through a half dozen editions by the turn of the century. Bok took his message on the road with a speech titled “The Keys to Success,” and he had a regular column in Ladies’ Home Journal in which he addressed questions of fashion, social matters, relationships, and the like for young men trying to get ahead. So Frank Baum, as he wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, would have been familiar with Bok as a spokesman for success. 

Later, in the 1920s, Bok spent a sizable chuck of his fortune (remember, Boq was “one of the richest Munchkins in the land”) to construct a garden of over sixty acres in central Florida. Mountain Lake Sanctuary (now known as Bok Tower Gardens) was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who imported acres of plants for what became a home to over a hundred species of birds. Bok himself, in a 1929 article in the Ladies’ Home Journal, called the sanctuary “the most beautiful spot in America.” The best-known feature of the sanctuary was a “singing tower” (so called for its impressive carillon), a two hundred-foot tall structure made of elaborately decorated pink marble. One writer has described it as America’s Pink Tower of Oz. (“If Oz had gone for a slightly more feminine touch of pink in its all-green colour scheme, you might very well mistake this for the end of the yellow brick road.”)

While some have seen Oz reflected in the Bok Tower Gardens, the specific Boq-Bok connection seems to have escaped modern-day scholars. It would have been more obvious in 1900 to Baum’s readers (or more likely their parents), who would have thought it appropriate to give a nod to Edward Bok in a story of a poor American girl’s journey to success in the big (Emerald) city. 

But Baum perhaps had something else in mind with the character of Boq. Edward Bok was no feminist. He opposed the co-called “New Woman” who pushed for greater social status, more economic opportunity, and especially the right to vote. He took the title of his magazine quite literally; he had no respect for the woman who pushed for a role outside the home. “When a woman talks in that way,” he wrote in 1899, “you may always make up your mind that something is the matter with her: something is wrong, and that ‘something’ is almost invariably her intelligence…. The most barren homes in this country generally belong to one class of women: those who, on the platform and with pen, are always hysterically and frantically demanding an expansion of women’s opportunities.” These “platform women,” as he called them, have “never been a credit to, but ever a blot upon, American womanhood.” 

A few years later, in a piece in the New York Times arguing against women’s suffrage, Bok explained it this way: “Woman, by her very nature, is a personification of nervous energy; of emotion; of sentiment. That nervous energy and emotion were given her for expression in her natural channels—that of motherhood. And when she reaches that expression she finds ample outlet for all her nervous energy. But for a number of years there has grown up in America a dangerous type of women, a woman who, misunderstanding the modern currents of thought, has believed her work in the world lay outside of the home or who for some reason or other has developed a positive aversion to motherhood.” 

Baum, on the other hand, was a strong supporter of women’s rights and suffrage (and, incidentally, the son-in-law of Matilda Joslyn Gage, a leading “platform woman” and author, with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, of the History of Woman Suffrage). In 1890, as a newspaper editor in Aberdeen, Baum had been one of South Dakota’s strongest supporters for equal voting rights as the new state debated and voted on (and ultimately against) a statewide women’s suffrage amendment. Where Bok always described success in male terms, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz can easily be read as a feminist story: Dorothy is a hero figure, Oz is ruled by women, and male figures are generally weak. According to Michael Patrick Hearn, Baum’s chief biographer, the book is “almost universally acknowledged to be the earliest truly feminist American children’s book.” With the character of Boq helping the young heroine along her yellow brick road to success, Baum was perhaps getting in a little feminist jab at Edward Bok. 

Incidentally, a few years after publication of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Bok reportedly offered Baum $2,500 for a new story for the Ladies’ Home Journal. Baum responded with a story about a gingerbread man. Bok returned the manuscript with suggestions for revisions, including the addition of a human child with whom young readers could identify. Baum added Chick the Cherub, the child Bok had requested, but he refused to assign a gender to Chick. Chick could be a girl or a boy in the reader’s mind; Baum never used a gendered pronoun or gave other explicit indication of sex. When he completed the revised story, Baum did not return it to Bok for the magazine; instead, he sent it to Frank Reilly, who had been associated with the firm that first published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and who now published Baum’s new story as John Dough and the Cherub (1906).

So, does The Wonderful Wizard of Oz have a hidden meaning? Yes, but perhaps the meaning is not Populism and the coinage of silver, but rather an affirmation of Baum’s feminism.