Whenever I introduce myself as a witch who writes about witches, the conversation often turns to The Wizard of Oz, and when it does, I’m always tempted to focus on the movie’s verdant villain. Many fans delight in the Wicked Witch of the West’s deranged cackle and her lust for power and ruby pumps. Even when she meets her demise at Dorothy’s hands, she goes down in style, seething: “Who would have thought a good little girl like you could destroy my beautiful wickedness?” The filmmaker John Waters (Pink Flamingos, Hairspray) has said, “That line inspired my life. I sometimes say it to myself before I go to sleep, like a prayer.”
Still, on the 80th anniversary of the movie that made the Wicked Witch famous, I find myself more drawn to her pastel counterpart, Glinda the Good Witch of the North. She was arguably the first American pop-culture figure to prove that, despite their reputation for diabolical antics, witches could be benevolent beings. Though there had been two silent-film adaptations of the Oz story before MGM’s The Wizard of Oz came out in August 1939, the typical moviegoer would have been most familiar with screen witches who were creepy old crones or black-frocked fairy-tale monstresses out to get wide-eyed ingenues. In all her rosy-pink goodness, Glinda was literally and figuratively a witch of a different color and an unlikely feminist force.
It can be easy at first to dismiss the Good Witch as frivolous when compared with her nemesis. “Of the two Witches, good and bad, can there be anyone who’d choose to spend five minutes with Glinda?” Salman Rushdie once asked in The New Yorker, calling her “a silly pain in the neck.” It’s true that there’s a cartoonish high femininity to Glinda: her butterfly-bedazzled pageant gown, her honeyed singing. And then there’s the way her character affirms old-fashioned ideas about the value of beauty: “Only bad witches are ugly,” Glinda tells Dorothy upon their meeting. In Oz, prettiness and virtue are conflated, and Glinda is the fairest of them all.
Billie Burke, the 54-year-old actor who played Glinda, also prized beauty, and some of her opinions on the matter come across as retrograde today. “To be a woman, it seems to me, is a responsibility which means giving, understanding, bearing, and loving. To begin with, these things require being as attractive as possible,” she declares in her 1959 autobiography, With Powder on My Nose. But she thought the wise and gracious Glinda was a departure from the (in her words) “skitter-wits” and “spoony ladies with bird-foolish voices” that she was known for playing. She came to consider Glinda her favorite role, though she’d insist on referring to the character as a “good fairy” rather than a “good witch,” thereby distancing herself from the very word that the film sought to redefine for the better.
As Burke recognized, there’s more to Glinda than her saccharine trappings. When the Wicked Witch threatens her, she responds with a laugh: “Oh, rubbish! You have no power here. Be gone, before somebody drops a house on you too.” Glinda later asks Dorothy whether she has a broomstick for flying to the Emerald City. “Well, then, you’ll have to walk,” the Good Witch replies when Dorothy says no. Glinda then sends the child to brave the wilds of Oz with nothing more than a canine companion and some flashy footwear. Beneath Glinda’s tulle outfit is a spine of steel—and a belief that a young woman like Dorothy could grow one and become independent too.
Delving into the provenance of Glinda’s character reveals a lineage of thinkers who saw the witch as a symbol of female autonomy. Though witches have most often been treated throughout history as evil both in fiction and in real life, sentiments began to change in the 19th century as anticlerical, individualist values took hold across Europe. It was during this time that historians and writers including Jules Michelet and Charles Godfrey Leland wrote books that romanticized witches, often reframing witch-hunt victims as women who’d been wrongfully vilified because of their exceptional physical and mystical capabilities. Per Michelet’s best-selling book, La Sorcière of 1862: “By the fineness of her intuitions, the cunning of her wiles—often fantastic, often beneficent—she is a Witch, and casts spells, at least and lowest lulls pain to sleep and softens the blow of calamity.”
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.
The witches of ’90s films such as Practical Magic and The Craft deploy vengeance spells against their male abusers. These occult guerrilla girls manifested in the movies during a decade when sexual harassment came to the fore of public discussion, partly because of the riot grrrl movement and Anita Hill’s testimony at the Clarence Thomas hearing. And the enchanting champions of the Harry Potter films and the Netflix series Chilling Adventures of Sabrina display a cautiously hopeful outlook about the intersection of magic and social justice. The Potter films and original books can be read as an allegory about the fight against prejudice. Sabrina has plotlines that center black and queer characters, which is especially fitting when one considers that witchcraft has been historically linked to marginalized groups. Such fictional covens reflect not only the diversity of TV audiences, but also the broad range of contemporary witchcraft practitioners who draw from non-European traditions. It’s notable that in Harry Potter and Sabrina, 21st-century witches get to keep their powers and use them to save the world. Slowly but surely, as feminism has evolved and expanded, the pop-culture witch has shape-shifted along with it.
Today many people—including me—proudly describe themselves as witches. Sometimes the label is chosen to signify one’s engagement in some form of modern witchcraft; just as often, it’s used as a way to express opposition to patriarchal constraints. But no matter the connotation, Glinda helped pave that yellow brick road for us, amplifying the notion that a witch is someone we can root for or, better yet, be.