Matilda Joslyn Gage: An interview with biographer Angelica Shirley Carpenter

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Matilda Joslyn Gage, mother of Maud Baum.

“Researching Matilda gave me a different, and deeper, understanding of that story, both the book and the movie. I’ve always loved the photo of Maud with Judy Garland, so I loved it that your story took flight from there.”

For the first in a series of occasional interviews about people and places from the world of Oz, I’m delighted to have with me Angelica Shirley Carpenter, author of Born Criminal: Matilda Joslyn Gage Radical Suffragist.

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Hi Anjelica, Thank you so much for joining me today. I’m really looking forward to hearing more about your research into Matilda Joslyn Gage. I very much enjoyed your book– it’s funny how we were working on overlapping subjects, but I knew nothing about your work until you introduced yourself to me. Since I was writing historical fiction, I was often imagining things that Matilda might have said or done, so it was absolutely fascinating for me to read some of the things that you uncovered in your book that let shed new light on things I had wondered about.

You are the author of a biography of Matilda Joslyn Gage. Can you tell me what led to your interest in the subject?

I have always loved the Oz books. I was the third-generation Oz fan in my family, following my mother and her uncle (I inherited their books), but the first Oz nut. In 1992 my mother, Jean Shirley, and I published a middle-grade biography of L. Frank Baum. Doing the research for this book put Matilda on my radar. In 2004 I became president of the International Wizard of Oz Club, and during that time, Dr. Sally Roesch Wagner, the prominent Matilda Joslyn Gage scholar, was restoring Gage’s house in Fayetteville, New York, to open it as a museum. She invited the Club to tour the house in 2008, while it was still under construction, and I became more interested in Matilda. In 2010, I put on a national Oz convention at California State University, Fresno, and I invited Sally to speak there about Matilda. It was then that I decided to write my next biography about her. Sally encouraged me and helped me all the way. 

Can you talk about your research process?  

Not a lot had been published about Matilda when I started writing. Sally had published some booklets, and there was one academic book, Excluded from Suffrage History: Matilda Joslyn Gage, Nineteenth-Century American Feminist (Greenwood Press, 2000), by Leila R. Brammer, that discussed Matilda’s work but not her personal life. So I tracked down primary sources. Because I have access to a large academic library, the Henry Madden Library at Fresno State, I was able to borrow microfilmed copies of Matilda’s letters from Radcliffe via interlibrary loan. The microfilm was old and dirty and Matilda’s handwriting was hasty, often illegible, so it took me about six months to read through these, taking notes along the way. I spent time at the Library of Congress, reading and photographing Matilda’s scrapbooks, which were filled with newspaper articles she had saved and annotated. I read newspapers from her lifetime online, including newspapers she wrote. I visited sites that were important to her, returning to Fayetteville in 2010 when the Gage House opened to hear lectures by Sally Roesch Wagner and Oz scholar Michael Patrick Hearn. I read books and letters written by Matilda’s friends and colleagues, and eventually I found dissertations and feminist books from the 1970s that “re-discovered” Matilda after she had been left out of history for many decades.

What was Matilda’s relationship with L. Frank Baum?

At first she didn’t approve of him as a husband for her daughter Maud. She saw him as a spoiled, rich young man who lacked education. Matilda, who had been denied the chance to go to college at a time when women were not admitted, who had worked all her life to get women into institutions of higher learning, was horrified when Maud dropped out of Cornell to marry Frank. But Frank made a sincere effort to win Matilda over and it worked. Since she often lived with the Baums, she saw first-hand what a loving husband and father he was. That’s not to say that she found him perfect; she could be funny and sarcastic about him, as any mother-in-law might be about her daughter’s husband, but they clearly cared for and admired each other. She loved the stories he told his four sons and she encouraged him to write them down and to send them to publishers. I like to think of the two of them, writing under the same roof, Frank writing fairy tales and Matilda writing radical feminist diatribes.  

Where are some places where you see Matilda’s influence in the inspirations and themes found in Oz books.

So many places! Dorothy is a strong-minded, active American heroine who is not afraid of hard work for a good cause. In the second book, The Marvelous Land of Oz, Frank pokes a little political humor at the women’s movement with his characters General Jinjur and her Army of Revolt, but at the end of that book, a woman becomes the ruler of Oz, and for the rest of the series, Oz is a feminist utopia, ruled by women.

Even the humor reflects Matilda. Late in life, she became a vegetarian. L. Frank Baum was enthusiastic meat-eater who liked pork chops for breakfast. It’s easy to imagine their discussions over meals when you read the third Oz book, Ozma of Oz.

In an early scene, Dorothy sits on the beach while her hen, Billina, scratches in the sand for bugs.

            “How dreadful!” Dorothy says, “eating live things.”

            “You humans eat all sorts of dead creatures,” the hen says. “You eat lambs and sheep and cows and pigs and even chickens.”

            “But we cook ‘em,” Dorothy says. . . . “And, anyhow, we never eat such dreadful things as bugs.”

            “But you eat the chickens that eat the bugs,” says the hen with a cackle. “So you are just as bad as we chickens are.” 

How do you feel about The Wizard of Oz movie. How has researching Matilda Joslyn Gage changed your view of the story?

I love that movie, but not as much as the books. I’m probably one of the last people still living who read the books, several of them, before seeing the movie. But I do love it, and even though I’ve seen it so many times that I can recite the dialogue along with the actors, each time I watch it, I laugh and cry and even find something new that I didn’t notice before. I just had the great pleasure of watching it with my five-year-old granddaughter for her first time. Researching Matilda gave me a different, and deeper, understanding of that story, both the book and the movie. I’ve always loved the photo of Maud with Judy Garland, so I loved it that your story took flight from there.

Matilda Joslyn Gage worked closely with people we still talk about today— Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.  Why do you think she isn’t as well known as her comrades today?

Matilda’s rivalry with Anthony started in 1852, when they each attended their first women’s rights convention. Matilda made a speech in a soft voice. Soon after, Anthony, a former teacher whose voice projected well, moved that no one else should be allowed to speak whose voice could not fill the hall. She got voted down, as most of the women present were inexperienced public speakers, like Matilda.

Anthony, who liked being the star of the women’s movement, felt jealous when others received acclaim. In the 1870s, Anthony took credit for some of Matilda’s writing. In the 1890s Matilda said that Anthony had also cheated her out of money.   

Matilda was closer to Elizabeth Cady Stanton than she was to Anthony; Matilda and Stanton shared the same extreme views about how organized religion and how it oppressed women. But in their old age, Anthony made deals with conservative, religious groups. Matilda and Stanton both opposed such partnerships, but Stanton supported Anthony anyway.

In 1898, the year Matilda died, Stanton published her autobiography, which largely omitted Matilda. Later Anthony asked Ida Husted Harper to write her official biography. This book, written under Anthony’s close supervision, minimized Matilda’s achievements. Stanton and Anthony’s published accounts became the accepted history of the movement, with Matilda missing for decades. In the 1970s, feminist scholars re-discovered her work and since then, recognition of her leadership and her work, especially her book Woman, Church and State, has grown steadily.

What’s next for you and Matilda?

I’m pleased that next year my first picture book will be published, The Voice of Liberty, about Matilda and her best friend, Lillie Devereux Blake, and a protest they organized in 1886 at the dedication of the Statue of Liberty. You might wonder why anyone would protest the Statue of Liberty; Matilda and Lillie demanded to know why Liberty was represented as a woman when women had no rights in the United States. This book will be published in the fall of 2020 by the South Dakota Historical Society Press (which also published Born Criminal) to celebrate the centennial of women’s suffrage and it will be illustrated by the terrific Edwin Fotheringham.

Well, thank you so much for joining me today! For anyone who has read Finding Dorothy, I think this excellent biography makes for a fascinating follow-up, and it’s also a terrific book to recommend to any young woman in your life.

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