If you make the mistake of listening to bogus historians and clueless movie celebrities they’d tell you that Walt Disney was a notorious gender bigot who denied opportunity to young women and kept them cloistered in a “sweatshop” called the Ink&Paint Department. Naturally, the young women would be denied the opportunities given to their male counterparts and would have to settle for second class citizenship in Walt Disney’s cartoon factory. The know-nothing movie stars and ill informed historians would go on to tell you about the misery of being female at fifties Disney where men ruled the roost and women had to accept a subservient role should they want to be a Disney employee. That’s what they would tell you, and more than likely, you’d probably believe they were telling the truth. However, there’s another side to the story and perhaps you might want to hear from someone who actually observed what took place at the Walt Disney Studio back in the fifties.
However, let’s be fair. Clearly, there were young women who thought they were being treated unfairly. Even though Walt Disney wanted to create a utopian community for his artists, there’s no doubt the animation facility was far from perfect. Indeed, I’ve heard complaints from women who felt they were denied opportunity and more than a few felt that being female was hardly an asset in what was often viewed as a “man’s world.” No doubt Walt Disney made his fair share of missteps early in his career and the nineteen forties labor troubles were but one example of the companies’ failings. Yet, before we judge Walt too harshly, let’s remember how incredibly progressive things were at the Disney Studio compared to most of the Hollywood film factories at the time.
First of all, women were not restricted to the Ink&Paint Department and more than a few female artists played important roles in Disney Animation when the feature animated film, “Sleeping Beauty” was in production. Should you take a stroll down the hallway of D-Wing back in the fifties you’d more than likely see a number of young female artists sitting at their drawing tables. It might surprise you to see a nervous young man gently tapping on the office door of a young woman. A woman who was his supervisor. That’s correct. It was not unusual for young women to be in charge of clean-up units on the motion picture, and they be would be the ones calling the shots. I sketched this cartoon drawing of my pal, Ruben gently knocking on the office door of his boss. He had good reason to be nervous, because the young women in charge did not suffer fools, and should your work not be up to snuff, you would hear about it in short order. However, you would find women everywhere at fifties Disney. Evelyn Kennedy in the music department and Ruthie Thompson in scene planning. Naturally, there were talented young women in Walt’s background and layout department. Thelma Witmer, Barbara Begg, Sylvia Romer and Sammie June Landham to name a few. Finally, my boss, Phyllis Hurell was in charge of Walt’s Commercial Film Division at the fifties studio. As I said earlier, women were hardly restricted to the Ink&Paint Building.
This evening, author, Mindy Johnson will introduce her new book, “Ink&Paint, the Women of Disney Animation,” at the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences. I have no doubt we’ll be playing to a packed house tonight as colleagues, friends and fans of animation come together to celebrate the many talented women who contributed to this amazing art form. And, I encourage you to purchase the insightful book when it comes out later this year. We all know that women worked in Walt Disney’s Ink&Paint Department for many years. What you didn’t know was that these incredible women worked everywhere else as well.