In Walt Disney on Trial (Part One) we made reference to a letter written by Walt Disney that suggested he was sexist and treated women unfairly in the workplace. When actress Meryl Streep made the accusation, there were many who were not familiar with the letter and wondered what in the world she was talking about. The letter she quoted was written in 1938 and indeed found the Hollywood of the day to be an era where women were not a part of animation departments and were confined to inking and painting in all Hollywood studios. That was not a Disney created issue, that was the practice in the entertainment industry during that era.
However, if Meryl would have looked closer and done her research she would have found there were a number of women working at Disney on the creative side of film-making during that time, mostly in story development. Which was breaking the tradition and cultural norms of the day. While the letter stated that men who began work at the studio were to begin as in-betweeners in animation while women would begin in ink and paint, it clearly does not reflect the amazing opportunities for women in the Disney Studios when most of Hollywood would never give them that opportunity.
In 1941, Walt told male artists working on Dumbo, “If a woman can do the work as well, she is worth as much as a man. The girl artists have the right to expect the same chances for advancement as men, and I honestly believe they may eventually contribute something to this business that men never would or could.” That quote stands in stark contrast to the form letter Streep so passionately quoted. Retta Scott became Disney’s first female animator on 1942’s Bambi, and in the ’40s and ’50s, Mary Blair was art supervisor and color stylist for Saludos Amigos, The Three Caballeros, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan.
In 1959, Disney wrote, “Women are the best judges of anything we turn out. Their taste is very important. They are the theatergoers, they are the ones who drag the men in. If the women like it, to heck with the men.” (dates and quotes above from the Hollywood Reporter)
A little less headline grabbing and a little more research would have shown Meryl and anyone else that wants to circulated that well worn and false accusation, that Mary Blair, Retta Scott, Bianca Majolie and Sylvia Holland managed to emerge in an industry that was predominately male… and became some of Walt’s favorites. He trusted them, encouraged them, and helped make them successful. Disney was at the front of change and by the 1950s a group of talented women made their careers, their futures, and their legacy at the Walt Disney Studios.
Walt desired that women could not only be a part of his studio, but he desired that it would be a workplace where women could be employed without embarrassment or humilation. Walt valued women and their creativity, their worth as individuals, and their role in the Disney company. As the father of two girls and a devoted husband how embraced family life and values apart from the usual Hollywood scene, he carried this into his work at Disney.
When Walt lived and the Disney Studios were going through a rapid expansion, Walt saw beyond stereotypes and had women in the role of animator, concept artists, and story artists. They help positions of leadership and authority at his studio when others in Hollywood refused to give women that opportunity. So in stark contrast to the accusations of him being sexist, Walt stood at the forefront of providing women with opportunities to advance and lead that others in his era simply did not.
Walt Disney was not a sexist and the evidence of his life and legacy are proven by history.
Be sure to read the next installment – Walt Disney on Trial (Part Three) – Was Walt Disney an anti-Semite?
To read the first installment in this series click the link below
Walt Disney on Trial is a series that is being compiled by author Jeff Dixon. Jeff has written a series of novels set in and around Walt Disney World entitled, The Key to the Kingdom, Unlocking the Kingdom, and Storming the Kingdom. The latest installment in that series is called, Terror in the Kingdom and will be released soon. He is also the author of the new book, The Disney Driven Life. This is a book that draws life lessons and leadership principles from the history and life of Walt Disney. Some know Jeff as Dixon On Disney – and he resources and comments on Disney history, attractions, and news. He is a researcher that draws heavily on the incredible works of Disney historians and biographers with an attempt to understand and apply the life lessons that are uncovered.
Some of the research for this series comes from
It’s Kind of a Funny Story – by Rolly Crump (Bamboo Forest Publishing. 2012)
Walt Disney-The Triumph of the American Imagination – by Neal Gabler (Vintage 2006)
Walt Disney and the Promise of Progress City – by Sam Gennaway (Theme Park Press 2014)
Walt’s People – 15 Volumes – by Didier Ghez (Theme Park Press 2005-2015)
The Vault of Walt, Vol. 1-3 – by Jim Korkis (Theme Park Press 2012-2014)
Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow – by Christian Moran (Theme Park Press 2015)
Walt Disney An American Original – by Bob Thomas (Disney Editions 1976)