Learning that Carey Graeber was a college student before she saw The Wizard of Oz in its entirety isn’t all that strange. “We had a black and white TV when I was growing up. So when it came on TV, I didn’t get what the big reveal was, the big deal that everything turns into color.”
The documentary filmmaker is working on a bit of transformative wizardry of her own. Graeber, along with writer Mona Kanin, is finishing work on Rediscovering Dorothy, a documentary exploring the origins of one of the most enduring films and cultural reference points. Tracing L. Frank Baum’s history, she uncovered his outspoken mother-in-law Matilda Joslyn Gage, a dynamic feminist before the word was ever used.
Matilda Joslyn Gage was at the forefront of the women’s movement, working alongside Susan B. Anthony for women’s right to vote. And yet, her activism and her connection to L. Frank Baum’s creation have often gone unacknowledged.
The documentary began in 2001, as part of a local PBS project called Public Square. Graeber’s interest in Baum and Gage started with a colleague sending her an essay by Sally Roesch Wagner, the executive director of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation.
Growing up in Aberdeen, South Dakota, Graeber didn’t know that she shared a hometown with L. Frank Baum . A businessman, Baum had moved his family from Fayetteville, New York, to Aberdeen when it was just barely a settlement, opening a specialty dry goods store in the hopes of a bustling town that never quite materialized. Baum went bankrupt a number of times, but never got discouraged. One of his business ventures was the local newspaper, for which he also wrote editorials and some satire.
“There probably would not be a Dorothy if not for [Baum's wife] Maud and Matilda Joslyn Gage, two very strong women in L.Frank Baum’s life,” says Michael Patrick Hearn, author of The Annotated Wizard of Oz. Gage, Baum’s mother-in-law, was his “intellectual mentor, providing Baum with the social-reform vision that became the blueprint for his utopian world of Oz,” according to Wagner.
Gage was instrumental in getting Baum to write down and publish the Oz stories he’d been telling to entertain children. “You’re a fool if you don’t publish them,” she told her son-in-law. The first of fourteen Oz books, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, was published in 1900. Baum applied his entrepreneurial spirit to marketing the books, producing an Oz musical in 1903, and even participating in early Oz films.
An outspoken advocate for both women’s and Native American rights, the inspiration for Dorothy was fiercely independent. Gage was adopted into the Wolf Clan of the Haudenasonee Iroquois Indians in 1893, after she had written numerous articles detailing, with the utmost respect, the equality of genders she observed in the Native American social structure. She was a contemporary of Susan B. Anthony, working towards equal rights for women, including the right to vote.
“You have to understand,” says Graeber, “In 1876, married women weren’t allowed to do anything, or own anything. Women who wanted to organize a centennial celebration for the nation couldn’t rent the hall, if they were married. They had to get a single woman to rent the hall.” She adds that the early women’s movement was funded by men, because women had so few essential rights.
Gage was one of the first women to advocate for women’s financial rights. Graeber credits her as the driving force behind several of the suffrage movement’s key strategies. “She was the architect of several acts of civil disobedience,” Graeber said, adding that Gage secured for women the right to vote in school board elections in New York State.
Gage’s book Women, Church and State (1893) argues for a more complete separation of church and state, and saw churches too often obstructing women’s rights. Her position put her at odds with her contemporaries’ alliance between women’s suffrage efforts and the temperance movement — a strategic coalition that was commonly seen as a winning strategy.
As she explored further, Graeber discovered that at a crucial moment: Gage lacked funds to get to Seneca Falls — and thereby was left out of a critical vote to merge the interests of temperance and suffrage. Thus came a rift that put Gage on one side, and Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton on the other. Gage felt that Anthony had betrayed her, and even compromised what the women’s movement stood for.
Graeber points out that now, Gage’s anticlericalism feels “prescient about problems society now faces,” such as allegations of church corruption, and the entanglement of church and state. But that rift is also why the name of Matilda Joslyn Gage is so unfamiliar today.
Over the course of researching and filming the documentary, Graeber’s view of that rift has evolved. She remembers, she says, being more militant about giving the wronged Gage a voice. She has come to see that “politics is hard. One of the reasons women didn’t get to vote until 1920 was that the big liquor lobby fought it, fearing temperance. We got to vote, and temperance was passed.”
Usually, schools don’t emphasize these commercial, pragmatic aspects of history in schools, Graeber added.
“Women’s history is complicated, and we don’t have the venue to learn about it. It’s hard to be realistic about the inside of women’s history, and we’re so fragile about it, that learning the truth surprises us. There are people who won’t be interested in hearing this, that we shouldn’t be airing our dirty laundry, that we should keep Anthony on her pedestal. I say we have a responsibility to truth. We’re not making up what happens. Its facts. If women want parity in the world, we have to recognize that we’re fallible people too.”
L. Frank Baum became friends with Matilda Joslyn Gage when he married her daughter, Maud. Baum was the secretary for the South Dakota suffrage organization; he and Gage had a mutually respectful, intellectually stimulating friendship, rare between a man and a woman for that time.
Paraphrasing a vignette from the second Oz book, Graeber tells of a boy named Tip, who was really a girl under a spell. The Scarecrow tells Tip how great it is to be a girl, “which was a rare thought in 1902,” Graeber notes.
What about finding Gage’s influence on the famous movie, which marks its 70th anniversary this year? Graeber acknowledges that the script, which went through several revisions and numerous writers, and devices like ending as a dream adapted to what 1939’s audiences would believe. Several Oz scholars have picked up on the difference between Baum’s original Dorothy and the more passive role she seems to take in the famous movie.
Graeber is not the only one to realize that there are references to Oz everywhere, once you’re paying attention. Wicked witches, rusty tin joints, yellow bricks, lollipop toting munchkins, and of course, phrases and songs from the movie. Since she started the project, friends, family and colleagues have sent her all kinds of Oz memorabilia: Toto-festooned notepads, Scarecrow paper dolls, and a hilarious parody of the 2008 election (left).
The next step for Graeber’s own film project is to secure funding for archival rights, and to complete some of the final shooting and editing. Her experience with her Web site, Rediscoveringdorothy.com, has made her appreciate the Internet’s potential at the grassroots — both for support of her project, and for awareness of women’s history.
Graeber hopes the finished film will encourage people to delve deeper into women’s history, and to question the cultural icons they take for granted. “that American history is full of strong women that we don’t even know about, and that a movie that’s a huge cultural reference point has, at its heart, two very strong women who influenced Baum to write.”