When L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz Series Was Banned for “Depicting Women in Strong Leadership Roles” (1928)


We’ve reached the final stretch of the most infu­ri­at­ing, unset­tling elec­tion I’ve ever expe­ri­enced. And we find the U.S. so polar­ized  that—as The Wall Street Jour­nal chill­ing­ly demon­strates in their “Blue Feed Red Feed” feature—the left and right seem to live in two entire­ly dif­fer­ent real­i­ties. Still, one would have to work very hard on either side, I think, to deny the role sex­ism has played. One can­di­date, a known and well-doc­u­ment­ed misog­y­nist, leads mil­lions of sup­port­ers call­ing for his opponent’s death, impris­on­ment, and humil­i­a­tion. That oppo­nent, of course, hap­pens to be the first woman to run on a major par­ty tick­et in a gen­er­al elec­tion.

Do many Amer­i­cans still have a prob­lem with accept­ing women as lead­ers? I per­son­al­ly don’t think there’s much of an argu­ment there, and peo­ple who see the ques­tion as redun­dant mar­vel at how long archa­ic atti­tudes about women in pow­er have per­sist­ed. At least these days we can open­ly have the—often high­ly inflamed—conversation about sex­ism in busi­ness, enter­tain­ment, and gov­ern­ment. And we can sup­port a cul­tur­al indus­try thriv­ing on strong female char­ac­ters in fic­tion, film, and tele­vi­sion. Not so much in 1928, when the Chica­go Pub­lic Library banned The Wiz­ard of Oz, writes Kristi­na Rosen­thal at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Tul­sa Depart­ment of Spe­cial Col­lec­tions, “argu­ing that the sto­ry was ungod­ly for ‘depict­ing women in strong lead­er­ship roles.’”

First pub­lished in 1900, L. Frank Baum’s fan­ta­sy nov­el ini­ti­at­ed a series of 13 Oz-themed sequels, all of which became immense­ly pop­u­lar after MGM’s 1939 film adap­ta­tion. (You can find them all in text and audio for­mat here.) And yet, “through­out the years the books have been opposed for their pos­i­tive por­tray­als of fem­i­nin­i­ty.” Var­i­ous libraries used sim­i­lar excus­es to ban the books through­out the 50s and 60s. The Detroit pub­lic library banned the Oz books in 1957, stat­ing they had “no val­ue for chil­dren of today.” The ban remained in place until 1972. One Flori­da librar­i­an cir­cu­lat­ed a memo to her col­leagues call­ing the books “unwhole­some,” among oth­er things, and caus­ing a run on local book­stores as chil­dren des­per­ate­ly tried to find them.

Oth­er groups decid­ed that the books pro­mot­ed witch­craft in charges sim­i­lar to those levied at the Har­ry Pot­ter series. In 1986, a group of Fun­da­men­tal­ist Chris­t­ian fam­i­lies in Ten­nessee came togeth­er to remove the The Wiz­ard of Oz from their schools’ cur­ricu­lum, protest­ing “the novel’s depic­tion of benev­o­lent witch­es.” They argued, writes Rosen­thal, “that all witch­es are bad, there­fore it is ‘the­o­log­i­cal­ly impos­si­ble ‘for good witch­es to exist.” Many seek­ing to ban the books since have sim­i­lar­ly referred to their pos­i­tive depic­tions of mag­ic and “god­less super­nat­u­ral­ism,” but the Ten­nessee case stands as a land­mark in the Reli­gious Right’s liti­gious cru­sade against the gov­ern­ment. The attor­ney who rep­re­sent­ed plain­tiff Vic­ki Frost called on “every born-again Chris­t­ian to get their chil­dren out of pub­lic schools.”

It’s odd to think of whim­si­cal children’s lit­er­a­ture so seem­ing­ly innocu­ous as The Wiz­ard of Oz books as ter­ri­to­ry in the long cul­ture wars of the 20th cen­tu­ry. But as we are remind­ed every year dur­ing Banned Books Week (Sep­tem­ber 25 − Octo­ber 1, 2016), lit­er­a­ture often arous­es the ire of those incensed by change and dif­fer­ence. Yet their attempts to sup­press cer­tain books have always back­fired, mak­ing the tar­gets of their cen­sor­ship even more pop­u­lar and sought-after. If you’d like to read Baum’s Oz books now, you needn’t con­front a gate­keep­ing librar­i­an; sim­ply head over to our post on the com­plete Wiz­ard of Oz series, with free eBooks and audio books of all 14 female-cen­tric fan­ta­sy clas­sics.

via The Smith­son­ian

Relat­ed Con­tent:

800 Free eBooks for iPad, Kin­dle & Oth­er Devices

The Com­plete Wiz­ard of Oz Series, Avail­able as Free eBooks and Free Audio Books

North Car­oli­na Coun­ty Cel­e­brates Banned Book Week By Ban­ning Ralph Ellison’s Invis­i­ble Man … Then Revers­ing It

74 Free Banned Books (for Banned Books Week)

1,000 Free Audio Books: Down­load Great Books for Free

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Aaron Holbritter says:

    I’ve always known it as L. Frank Baum, not Frank L., and a very quick search I could find no oth­er instances where that was used. I could be wrong and am curi­ous to be cor­rect­ed. Nit picky, I know, as I think this is an oth­er­wise well-writ­ten, thought pro­vok­ing arti­cle.

  • Matt D. says:

    There’s an error in the Rosen­thal arti­cle you cite here. The 1928 ban on the book for “depict­ing women in strong lead­er­ship roles” applied to pub­lic libraries in Chica­go, not all pub­lic libraries nation­wide (although I would­n’t be sur­prised if some oth­er towns did ban it around the same time).

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