The ideas of Michelet and like-minded writers influenced Matilda Joslyn Gage, an American suffragist, abolitionist, and theosophist. She posited that women were accused as witches in the early modern era because the Church found their intellect threatening. “The witch was in reality the profoundest thinker, the most advanced scientist of those ages,” she writes in her feminist treatise of 1893, Woman, Church, and State. Her vision of so-called witches being brilliant luminaries apparently inspired her son-in-law, L. Frank Baum, to incorporate that notion into his children’s-book series about the fantastical land of Oz. (Some writers have surmised that “Glinda” is a play on Gage’s name.)
Like Gage, Baum was a proponent of equal rights for women, and he wrote several pro-suffrage editorials in the South Dakota newspaper he owned briefly, the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer. Although his book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published in 1900, is titled after a man, it is fundamentally a female-centric story: a tale about a girl’s journey through a land governed by four magical women. There are actually two good witches in Baum’s original version: Glinda is the witch of the South, not the North, in his telling, and she doesn’t appear until the second-to-last chapter. The book states that she is not only “kind to everyone,” but also “the most powerful of all the Witches.”
On closer examination, the airy Technicolor Glinda is an exemplar of female leadership in keeping with Baum’s vision. She is, after all, a ruler, and it’s her decisions that drive much of the film’s plot. A maternal Merlin of a sort, Glinda is both a generous guide and a firm teacher. She assists Dorothy in key moments, giving her the ruby slippers and changing the weather to wake her out of a poppy-induced stupor. But she doesn’t let the young heroine take the easy way out. At the end of the film, she explains that she chose not to tell Dorothy that the girl had the power to heel-click herself home from the get-go, so that Dorothy could “learn it for herself.” Glinda knows Dorothy will awaken to her full potential and become self-sufficient only by facing each hex and hoax head-on. This cinematic Glinda is not only a sorceress then, but also a sage. It’s clear why Oprah Winfrey chose to be styled as the Oz sovereign for the Harper’s Bazaar 2015 Icons issue, declaring, “Glinda is a spiritual goddess.” The Good Witch may float in a bubble, but she has plenty of gravitas.
Glinda’s arrival on-screen blazed an iridescent trail for the aspirational witch characters that followed. It also opened the door for a new type of narrative featuring the witch as a protagonist, and not just as a villain or sparkly sidekick. Though the specific conflicts that these lead witches face vary from script to script, each must negotiate her relationship to the power she has—and whether her magic is seen as an asset or a threat is often a reflection of the sexual politics of her time. Veronica Lake’s Jennifer in I Married a Witch (1942) and Kim Novak’s Gillian Holroyd in Bell, Book and Candle (1958) are charming, glamorous women who use witchcraft to manipulate the men they fancy. But they have to relinquish their gifts in exchange for true love, prioritizing conjugal bliss over conjuration. Elizabeth Montgomery’s Samantha Stephens, of the 1960s show Bewitched, must constantly choose between her desire to be a “normal” housewife to please her husband and her own need to use her (super)natural abilities—a tension that many second-wave feminists would have recognized.