The Women of Oz

One part children's fantasy, one part women's history, and a couple of spoonfuls of detective work: Kathleen Sorbella Di Scenna shines a light on the women in L. Frank Baum's Wonderful World of Oz!

Di Scenna, as you may recall from another article in Tablehopping, is the Executive Director of the Lyman Frank Baum Foundation, Inc. of Syracuse.

Baum's connections to Syracuse and Central New York are deep and possibly more varied than you know - as are the more than 400 characters he created to write the many volumes of his much beloved Oz series.

Recently, the Hotel Syracuse opened its doors to the Foundation, which found a new home there in the lobby. The Foundation will have rotating exhibits, but one you may want to put on your "must see" list will be the exhibits Di Scenna, working with noted Rochester feminist, Carol Crossed, is preparing for the Hotel during Women's History month this March.

Women? Oz? Well, of course, we know that the heroine of the stories is Dorothy Gale, a little girl from Kansas who doesn't make it to the storm cellar before a cyclone picks her house up, whisks it away, and deposits it magically in Oz - right on top of the Wicked Witch of the East (woman of Oz #1). And we know there is a Good Witch (Glinda). And a Wicked Witch of the West. And Dorothy's aunt, to whom she is very anxious to return. And, if you read more of the books that just the one made famous by the Judy Garland film, you'll know there was Ozma, another Good Witch, and a host of other female characters that populated the pages of Baum's delightful books.

Di Scenna has done some homework - and as Women's History Month approached, she believed she had the makings of a fine exhibit: many of the women who populate Central New York's most valiant Women of History also, she believes, are hidden in the women in Baum's books.

Baum was born in Chittenango, NY, and grew up in Mattydale on his parents' beautiful estate, Rose Lawn. The story of the women of Oz, according to Kathleen, begins with his mother.

Baum's mother, Cynthia Ann Stanton, wealthy cousin of Henry Brewster Stanton, marries - against the wishes of her parents - poor cooper Benjamin Baum. Henry Brewster Stanton marries -  you guessed it, Elizabeth Cady.

A fanciful if sickly child, Baum began writing early, but eventually followed his interest in the theater and set out to become an actor. He found little success until his father built him his own theater - and his sister Harriet encouraged young Frank (he evidently disliked the name "Lyman") to write. He enjoyed some modest success with some of his work, notably The Maid of Arran, and eventually Baum's female relatives decided it was time for him to marry. They chose Maud Gage - daughter of famed suffragist Matilda Jocelyn Gage. Matilda disapproved, but apparently women of this era weren't likely to take "no" for an answer in matters of the heart, and Maud became Maud Baum.

Matilda Jocelyn Gage, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and of course Susan B. Anthony formed the famous triumvirate of powerful women who spearheaded the women's suffrage movement - and, according to Di Scenna, likely inspired Baum with the creation of some of the many female characters in his books.

I won't give away all her research here, but just leave you with one bit of literary sleuthing: who was Dorothy Gale? Di Scenna believes it is the immortalization of his little niece who died as an infant. The baby's name was Dorothy - Dorothy Gage. It isn't too far a stretch to imagine that he re-christened her Dorothy Gale, and made her his child heroine, who alone among all the travelers to Oz had the power to get her heart's desire without the Wizard's help.

Want to learn more?

Plan a visit to the exhibit at the beautifully-restored Hotel, and learn more about L. Frank Baum's Wonderful Women of Oz.


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