30 September 2014

A Myth about Oz’s “Women in Strong Leadership Roles”

A new myth about banning The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has cropped up and spread on the web.

Back in March 2013, R. Wolf Baldassarro posted a blog essay about objections to the book. Baldassarro isn’t a librarian, educator, or scholar. He’s a “seasoned paranormal investigator” who happens to feel strongly about book banning.

I found several faults with that essay, including falling for a 2004 Deadbrain hoax about Jerry Falwell and misquoting sources.

Baldassarro’s essay also said about the book:
Nevertheless, it has come under attack several times. Ministers and educators challenged it for its “ungodly” influence and for depicting women in strong leadership roles. They opposed not only children reading it, but adults as well, lest it undermine longstanding gender roles.

In 1928, the city of Chicago banned it from all public libraries.
Note that the words “depicting women in strong leadership roles” were Baldassarro’s own. While ascribing that thought to “Ministers and educators,” he didn’t cite any source, person, place, or date for that complaint.

Despite (or because of) how it overstated the evidence, Baldassarro’s essay got quoted on Buzzfeed and other sites.

Then this February Kristina Rosenthal at the University of Tulsa’s McFarlane Library posted her own essay on the book’s troubles with librarians and censors, which said:
In 1928 all public libraries banned the book arguing that the story was ungodly for “depicting women in strong leadership roles”. This argument remained the common defense against the novels from ministers and educators through the 1950s and 60s.
Baldassarro’s statement about a supposed policy in Chicago thus became a statement about “all public libraries,” and his phrase “depicting women in strong leadership roles” appeared as if it were a direct quotation from those 1928 book banners. That’s shoddy scholarship.

Furthermore, that statement doesn’t stand up to the briefest historical scrutiny. In 1928, Reilly & Lee was publishing one book every year in the Oz series, and would continue to do so for over a decade. How would that have remained economic if “all public libraries banned the book”? Hollywood adapted The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a feature film in 1925, a cartoon in 1933, and a major feature in 1939. If the book had so many opponents, why was it so broadly popular?

Was there really widespread opposition to “women in strong leadership roles,” even in a fairy tale, in 1928 America? Women had just finished serving as governors of Wyoming and Texas. In 1929 nine women took seats in Congress, including one elected from Illinois.

Finally, people who actually read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz know that its “women in strong leadership roles” consist of Glinda and possibly the Good Witch of the North; two others, the Wicked Witches, are actually eliminated. Meanwhile, the story shows the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Lion all becoming males in strong leadership roles.

I don’t think there’s any evidence of widespread, powerful objections to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz or its sequels based on their depiction of Glinda, Ozma, or Dorothy as strong females. There’s certainly no evidence that was cited in 1928 as a reason for “all public libraries” or any to ban the book. That’s a myth based on our wish to see ourselves as greatly superior to the people of past decades.


Anonymous said...

Great piece. One small error -- the Larry Semon Oz film was released in 1925, not 1928.

J. L. Bell said...

Oops. I knew that, but had 1928 too much on my mind. I'll correct.

J. L. Bell said...

All done. Thanks!