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Walt Disney Was No ‘Gender Bigot’

While we’ve already debunked Meryl Streep’s accusation that Walt Disney was a “gender bigot,” let us use her comments as an opportunity to dig even deeper and find out what actions Disney actually undertook to encourage the advancement of women at his studio.

The answer to that question lies in a speech that Disney gave to his company’s artists on February 10, 1941, during which he explained that the studio would begin to train women artists. Below is the relevant excerpt from the speech, which can be found in Walt Disney: Conversations. The emphasises are mine:

Another ugly rumor is that we are trying to develop girls for animation to replace higher-priced men. This is the silliest thing I have ever heard of. We are not interested in low-priced help. We are interested in efficient help. Maybe an explanation of why we are training the girls is in order. First, I would like to qualify it with this—that if a woman can do the work as well, she is worth as much as a man.

The girls are being trained for inbetweens for very good reasons. The first is, to make them more versatile, so that the peak loads of inbetweening and inking can be handled. Believe me when I say that the more versatile our organization is, the more beneficial it is to the employees, for it assures steady employment for the employee, as well as steady production turnover for the Studio.

The second reason is that the possibility of a war, let alone the peacetime conscription, may take many of our young men now employed, and especially many of the young applicants. I believe that if there is to be a business for these young men to come back to after the war, it must be maintained during the war. The girls can help here.

Third, the girl artists have the right to expect the same chances for advancement as men, and I honestly believe that they may eventually contribute something to this business that men never would or could. In the present group that are training for inbetweens there are definite prospects, and a good example is to mention the work of Ethel Kulsar and Sylvia Holland on “The Nutcracker Suite,” and little Retta Scott, of whom you will hear more when you see Bambi.

This is the earliest instance I’ve ever seen of an animation executive articulating that women should have equal opportunities as the men to contribute creatively to the production of films. Reading between the lines, I think it’s safe to assume that Disney’s launch of a training program for women had been considered an affront to the studio’s male-dominated creative staff. Disney, therefore, took a courageous stand by telling employes that not only would he continue the training program, but that women would eventually contribute things that “men never would or could.”

Disney wasn’t merely playing lip service to the notion of promoting women into creative positions. Shortly after he made the speech, in May 1941, Glamour published a two-page spread entitled “Girls at Work for Disney,” that featured photos of some of the women who were “holding important posts in story and character development, backgrounds, layouts, and cutting.” The author of the piece (and keep in mind this was a women’s magazine) wrote, “Salaries are from $18 to $75 per week, would be higher if more girls didn’t work a couple of years, marry and quit,” and continued, “Romance opportunities are about the same as at a co-ed university.”

Walt’s forward-thinking initiative resulted in dozens of women being promoted into inbetweening and assistant animation throughout the 1940s. Disney historian Hans Perk has suggested the following numbers:

“I had a look at who was at the studio in March 1945, and I counted 81 (yes, eighty-one) women at in the animation building alone!!! If we count a handful secretaries, assistant directors and stenographers, we are left with maybe as many as 50 or 60 ladies pushing pencils!”

Even if Perk’s estimates are overly generous and we cut them in half, that still amounts to dozens of women who had moved out of ink-&-paint and into the animation department—and that’s just in the year 1945!

None of this is to say that the Golden Age of animation was a welcoming place for women. On the whole, there was an industry-wide bias against women, a bias that could be traced to much larger cultural forces dictating the role of women in society. But the history of women in animation is also far richer than has been documented in any history book to date. Historians have had a tendency to highlight a handful of the better known female artists of the period, without acknowledging the dozens, and possibly hundreds, of women who held creative roles during that era.

In the earlier post about Meryl Streep’s comments, I listed the names of 25 women who worked at the Disney studio between the 1930s and 1950s. It is, as far as I’m aware, the most complete listing of non-ink-&-paint artists at Disney that anyone has ever compiled, and frankly, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Much more research remains to be done about the role of women at Disney, and the time to do it is now.

(“Girls at Disney” image from the Disney History blog)

  • otterhead

    Thank you, Amid, for this valuable contribution to a little less ignorance.

  • Dr. Merrill “Bo” Streep, DDS

    On behalf of my sister Meryl, who is far too devastated to make a public apology.

    Meryl (or “Merry Poo-poo,” the bullying kids used to call her in her dark and painful childhood since 1964) could hardly drag herself to the Golden Globes in a dazzling designer gown costing more than the salary of many working women and men of all colors in the country to bring herself to face the truth of what Walt Disney really said and did to dig deep into the repentant sorrows and emotions to publicly admit she was so very, very wrong to defame Mr. Disney.

    She assures me through one of her assistants that she will access the pain and regret when preparing to cry and scream in her next Oscar-nominated movie role.

    Meryl was acting is complete sincerity when Harvey Weinstein hired Bruce Vilanch to write her speech at the event honoring her dear chum Emma Thompson (whom she endearing calls “Emma-Bemma”). Being a busy actor with scripts to read and deep emotions to mine, she took the script at face value. The ones we should really throw under the bus are those assistants who failed to fact-check any of the accusations.

    But you see, Meryl is not one of those nasty “micro managers” who look over the shoulders of her vast staff, drivers, nannies, chefs, nutritionists, business managers, gardeners and the people who know that they had better make sure there is a tea cozy on her pepper pot at dinner.

    Trust me, my sister Meryl did not know what she was reading, but after she read, she assumed it was true and was incensed enough to put her reputation on the line and hijack the Emma Thompson event so that Harvey could play his adorable little games with the Oscar voters (whom he likes to refer to as his “Tiny Tinkertoys”). When he was a kid, the bullies called him “Harvey Whiney,” Every one of those bullies knows better now.

    Alas, my sweet, sincere sister only saw the alleged infractions laid upon Walt, and felt the need to set the record straight for all man and womankind of every racekind and religionkind.

    May the God, essence or being of your choice bless you, my dear Meryl. Thanks for the emailed birthday card. Please let your assistant know I spell my name with an “i”, not a “y.”

  • john

    Great post, thank you so much Amid for writing it. I was appalled at Meryl Streep’s remarks and glad to see someone setting the record straight. ;)

  • DarylT


  • Matt

    Since Meryl Streep is a liberal she can make these derogatory and false claims with no backlash. Now if a well known conservative had said anything remotely close to this it would of been off with their heads. Interesting how main stream news outlets have not picked up on the Meryl Streep story or have chosen not to.

  • Elana Pritchard

    So what you are saying is that Disney was not so much a gender bigot, as we ALL are for not giving enough credit to the women of animation throughout history.

    • Cathy

      Hmmm..”we all are sinners therefore we may not call out another sinner?”

      I beg for differentiation. We are not all the same!

      I – as many women I know who are animators – are in no way “gender bigots”; thus it would never occur to us to hire women as “job placeholders” for men!

  • Aleksandar Vujovic

    Disney LOVED Hot Dogs. It’s just one of those things Meryl should’ve mentioned. SMOKING GUN. BAM.

  • “Another ugly rumor is that we are trying to develop girls for animation to replace higher-priced men.” Wasn’t this only three months before the animators’ strike? I wonder how gender issues factored into that.

    • guest

      “The second reason is that the possibility of a war, let alone the
      peacetime conscription, may take many of our young men now employed, and
      especially many of the young applicants. I believe that if there is to
      be a business for these young men to come back to after the war, it must
      be maintained during the war. The girls can help here.”

      That’s interesting prescience too, because I read a series of interviews last month (Pearl Harbor) that said up till Pearl Harbor Americans overwhelmingly (80%) wanted to stay out of “Europe’s War” and that FDR had been elected in November 1940 on a platform “Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign war.” Yet that’s Walt in February 1941, 10 months before Pearl Harbor? Did Walt ever meet with FDR?

      • IJK

        That’s why he said possibility. I’m sure even after FDR said that, many people theorized that the U.S. would get involved eventually. “Tension is high”, “Too many big powers involved to ignore”, etc.

        It’s kind of like during the summer where I live, most people prepare for a possible blackout because of the excessive air condition use. Even if it never happens that year and it’s only happened 2 – 3 times since I’ve been born, I’m still ready because it’s a possibility.

  • Roberto Severino

    Great smackdown of a post against the ignorance of certain people. Well done, sir.

  • Joseph_Hudak

    This obsession people have with Disney being some sort of composite of Adolph Hitler and Howard Hughes never ceases to amaze me.

    As far as rumor mongering about studio execs 50 years ago, Howard Hughes, L.B. Mayer, Jack Warner, DF. Zanuck, and Harry Cohn always used to be the ones where your heard all of the unflattering rumors about. And that’s when most of them were still alive. Strange how all of the Disney rumors started filtering about 20 years after Disney was stone cold in the ground.

    Maybe Disney’s one of the few businessmen of that era people remember anymore, and every unflattering aspect of the 30s-60s gets dumped onto his legacy.

  • Jeff Kurtti

    Paula Sigman Lowery wrote this insightful piece for the Walt Disney Family museum Blog some time ago:

  • George Comerci

    I love this <3 Thank you for making this, Meryl Streep really ticked me off.

  • guest

    Meanwhile one of the featured links above is to story “DISNEY’S PRINCESS MAKEOVER OF MERIDA LEADS TO UPROAR…”

    Walt may not have been into boxing women into stereotypes, but Disney is apparently going that way now, prettifying/neutralizing/domesticating Merida, who had been a brave and independent young woman. Thanks for the timely spotlight.

    • IJK

      I’m sure if the artists in the main studio were in charge of the marketing department, things would be much different. Marketing is like a studio’s abscess. It’s doing something useful (Making money), but it’s kind of gross and you wish it would go away.

  • guest

    Amid, you wrote: “In the earlier post about Meryl Streep’s comments, I listed the names of
    25 women who worked at the Disney studio between the 1930s and 1950s.
    It is, as far as I’m aware, the most complete listing of
    non-ink-&-paint artists at Disney that anyone has ever compiled, and
    frankly, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Much more research remains
    to be done about the role of women at Disney, and the time to do it is

    I would look forward to a post on Mary Cleave, who signed the 1938 Mary Ford letter and also another, similar rejection letter, the 1939 Frances Brewer one: (Is this the same form letter Lillian Friedman got?

    It’s curious to wonder how both Walts — yours, and Mary, Frances and Lillian’s — coexist. Thanks.

    • guest

      Also fun to look at this story, with May 1941 Glamour magazine spread “Girls Work for Disney,” side by side with Amid’s 2007 story on 1935 Everyweek Magazine article “Meet Hollywood’s Men of Action”:

      — snip —

      Of particular note is this section where Walt Disney explains why women don’t make good animators:

      (quote) Ordinarily Disney keeps from 30 to 40 men in his apprentice room. The apprenticeship lasts from six months to a year.

      As a rule this class is composed entirely of young men. Seldom is a
      girl found among them. For some inexplainable reason, women don’t make good animators. At the present time there is only one in the entire business—Verne Harding who works on Oswald at Universal.

      “I don’t know why girls should be poor animators but they are,”
      Disney declares. “Very frequently they are better artists than men but for some reason they lack the knack of getting smooth action into their drawings.” (end quote)

      — snip —


      • Chancey

        Clearly, Walt had changed his mind about female animators by 1941. Retta Scott and others clearly impressed him enough to decide to train them as full animators, along with the men. Read the speech again. Maybe you, too, can change your mind. ;)

        • guest

          I liked it the first time I read a quote from it (last year) in the story at the Disney Family Museum site, linked to here by another commenter (“Worth as Much as a Man: Cracking the Celluloid Ceiling”). It’s great to see the whole thing. And yes, night can follow day…on the same planet. :-)

    • Doctor Biobrain

      Seeing as how 1941 occurred *after* 1935, 1938, or 1939, and not simultaneously, I don’t believe these two Walts coexisted. I would imagine he changed his mind.

      Seriously, it’s like people are never allowed to be forgiven anything, even after they change their ways. Some people just like to feel self-righteous, I suppose.

      • guest

        Frances Brewer’s rejection letter is dated May 9, 1939. Less than a year later, Retta Scott’s work is being praised by Walt himself, according to the Disney Family Museum story:

        — snip —

        In a story meeting on February 27, 1940, Scott’s sketches of the deer on the meadow were pointed out to Walt. “This is swell stuff,” he said. Producer Perce Pearce said “Garby [Bernard Garbutt] made a few drawings and she animated the in-betweens.” Walt mused, “First girl animator.” Pearce agreed. “We call her the female Freddy Moore.”
        — snip —

        Is forgiveness required? I haven’t condemned Walt or Meryl. I think there’s a bigger interesting thing here, and I’m curious and trying to learn, but what do I know. Best wishes.

  • Matt Norcross

    Meryl Streep obviously wants attention.

  • Floyd Norman

    I didn’t join Disney until the late fifties but there were many young women filling the ranks of the animation department. I would give their names, but there are way too many to list. It was not the total “Boys World” as is often perceived by critics of Disney.

    • guest

      Floyd, can you tell us anything about Mary Cleave? After all, she signed the sexist rejection letters (in the Brewer letter someone with the initials HC typed and signed for her). I’m just wondering how much is really Walt.

      Meryl Streep is catching so much flack for not fact checking, but in fact she accurately quoted a much published letter that is written on Disney studio letterhead. If you look closely at the original on flickr, it’s a printed form letter with Mary Ford’s address typed in. The 1939 letter to Frances Brewer has only slightly different wording. So neither of these letters were a one-off fluke, and they exist contemporaneously with women who were filling creative positions at Disney, as Amid has said. (When was Retta Scott hired? She was the first female animator?)

      Thanks so much.

      • Zee Myers

        great question, guest! Floyd, thanks for posting, would be very curious if you know anything more about those 1938,
        39 rejection letters.

  • Harrison

    Excellent post. Its good to see some more evidence of Walt Disney’s non biased attitudes and views.

  • Floyd Norman

    Someone asked about Mary Cleave, the woman who signed the infamous Ink&Paint letter at nineteen thirties Disney. This was simply a standard form letter and Mary was another Disney department head who didn’t remain with the company more than a few years. Walt Disney probably never even saw the letter attributed to him.

    • guest

      Hi Floyd, it was me who asked. But standard form letters come from somewhere — can you shed light on where the form letters came from and when they were retired? There’s a story there we don’t know. The stationery alone for the 1938 letter must have been a significant expense — evidence that Walt himself cared about appearances and would have known about the letters maybe? The 1939 stationery (or the image online) isn’t as nice, the wording isn’t as prompt, so arc-wise… lots to wonder about. Thanks so much, it’s such a pleasure to be able to ask you.

      • AmidAmidi

        Again, per the original ‘fact-check’ piece I wrote, this letter copies almost verbatim the information that appeared in a 1938 employee policy booklet. The secretary who wrote the letter was not making up her own rules, but simply reprinting an existing policy. The answers to when they changed the policies might best be found in researching the studio’s employee booklets, which are in the Disney archives (and not readily accessible to the public).

        • guest

          Amid, what was Mary Cleave’s position? She didn’t sign as a secretary or a department head; she signed for WALT DISNEY PRODUCTIONS, LTD., though the form letters she’s signing speak of the applicants’ letters being passed on to the Ink and Paint Department.

          Either way, Streep said “on evidence of his company’s policies,” which you say here truly was company policy at one time, whatever inaccessible facts remain to be checked and explored. Can’t wait till someone does that, btw, this is all interesting.

          (Wondering if you could ask Ruthie Thompson or June Patterson, from the oldest living animation artists post, about Cleave? Or any of the others interviewed in Patricia Zohn’s 2010 Vanity Fair article on the women of ink and paint? Zohn’s aunt was Rae Medby McSpadden, who she says was the first one to make it from ink and paint to assistant animator, in 1944. Mary Cleave is not mentioned in the article.

          Thank you for your posts and reply.

  • guest

    Okay, I’ll bite, not as someone who has answers but questions. First, I’m surprised at Meryl’s comments. Over in the first post I quoted Sharon Stone quoting Carrie Fisher who quoted Meryl as saying, “Is it truthful, is it necessary, and is it kind?” — the questions you should ask yourself before you speak. So there’s her inspiration ripples, so what’s up with the Disney “usual slanders”? Did she think making Walt look bad would make Emma look good? Or was it never intended as a condemnation but as a way to make the confrontation between two creative giants that’s the basis of Saving Mr. Banks really intriguing? Some people have said Meryl didn’t write her own speech — I can’t find if that’s true or not. But, muddle.

    Fact-checking wise, at least on the sexist rap, I think she’s taken some unfair heat, but then again the total truth about Walt’s personal commitment to discrimination seems to still be elusive. What Meryl said was, “And he was certainly, on the evidence of his company’s policies, a gender bigot. Here’s a letter from 1938, stating his company’s policy to a young woman named Mary Ford of Arkansas…” Walt didn’t sign the letter, Mary Cleave did (and for the whole company, not as a department head or secretarial position), but the letter on Disney stationery is real, and we know of a similar letter sent out in 1939 as well, so on evidence of his company’s stated policies, yeah, Meryl has a point. Though “bigot” is a harsh word when that was the norm for the nation, and if what Amid says is true about Disney actually leading the industry in the hiring of women in creative positions, then further fact checking would have helped. Then again, until Amid wrote that, would further fact checking have turned that up or negated the letter? Agh. There’s also the 1935 magazine Walt quote about women being better artists but poor animators, which conversely tells me that he DID look at the work of women animators. It would be nice to be able to stand in his shoes and see what he saw, but we can’t. So, muddle.

    The problem I have with all the weight thrown to the other side of the boat — declaring Walt was certainly NOT sexist/racist/antisemitic (and I know nothing about the racism/antisemitism so that’s a massive deficit on my part) — is that it takes all the life out of the guy in some extreme need to defend him (and what’s up with that?). Maybe on sum he wasn’t any of those things, didn’t end there, but if there’s evidence that he did touch those bases or passed through those valleys, isn’t it interesting to try to understand the big picture? Maybe those things were even necessary to the development of what made him so wonderful to us? Actually that’s what Meryl said at the beginning of her speech, as she introduced her references to Walt’s faults: “There is a piece of received wisdom that says that the most creative people are often odd, or irritating, eccentric, damaged, difficult. That along with enormous creativity comes certain deficits in humanity, or decency. We are familiar with this trope in our business. Mozart, Van Gogh, Tarantino, Eminem … Ezra Pound said, ‘I have not met anyone worth a damn who was not irascible.’ … Though he would say that because he was supposedly a hideous anti-Semite. But his poetry redeems his soul.”

    Meryl didn’t put Walt in the dumpster of bad artists, didn’t say that his soul was unredeemed, didn’t say his legacy was crap; what she delighted in was the thought of Walt’s difficulties with P.L. Travers in his long courtship of the Poppins rights — the basis of the film Emma Thompson was being honored for. But even if Walt were as beastly in real life as people say the speech says, and regardless of how beautiful a person Emma is, Walt must have met a nonbeautiful match in P.L., whose long wikipedia entry concludes with: “According to her grandchildren, Travers died loving no one and with and no one loving her.” Odd, irritating, eccentric, damaged, difficult… I haven’t seen the movie, but actually Meryl got me interested. I mean, look at the rich characters. Wikipedia even says Meryl turned down the role of P.L. first and then it went to Emma. Really? Maybe the next film is Saving Ms. Streep. I mean, look at the rich characters.

    In short, I don’t need villains and I don’t want to sanitize or dumb any of this down. I want to go exploring. Look, muddle!

    • Dingoes 8

      I appreciate how fair you’re trying to be.

      See how nicely I started this comment? It’s the standard way politicians, debaters, teachers and business associates start before they say “BUT.”

      That’s what Streep did by starting out with the standard “creative person” thing, then getting out the ill-informed knife, plunging it in and twisting it — as well as twisting the facts for the benefit of herself and Harvey Weinstein to whom she owes many favors.

      No one of that stature writes their own speeches, biographies or articles. They (and their cohorts) provide the theme, points and goals of the writing but leave it to those they trust, then they look at it, make changes and look at it again. That’s not a guess, it’s a fact.

      She has never been questioned about the accuracy nor appropriateness of the speech, not by Jimmy Kimmel (who like all major talk show hosts is told where NOT to go) in his scripted interview with Streep, nor will anyone else who wants to work with her, wants the advantages and status of socializing with her, wants to get further interviews with her, or wants her to invest in their project. Same with Weinstein. You want to curry favor with these people, not make them angry or vindictive.

      Even presidents in this country are not free from scrutiny of their decisions, motives, words and deeds. Big Hollywood stars are, as long as they don’t cross certain lines like race and gender bigotry.

      What Streep did was to push Walt Disney over the line. Walt Disney in 1938, Walt Disney in the ’40s, etc. We can’t know what Walt Disney of today might say, any more than we could know what Streep would do or say in 2075. However, her current web of influence will not protect her in 2075, so perhaps no celebrity will do the same thing to her that she is doing to Walt Disney.

      Lying, slandering, defaming, misrepresenting — and despite what that “great niece” said (who certainly can benefit, as filmmaker, from a nice boost from Streep or Weinstein), Streep has not only hurt the memory of Walt Disney and those who have struggled to correct the untruths, but she hurt the “real” members of his family, including those still grieving from the loss of Diane Disney.

      There is a law that protects the families of famous people from being ill used in advertising, products and promotions, like using Katharine Hepburn on rolls of toilet paper.

      Didn’t Streep do the same thing?

  • John Alden Morgan

    So Amid, what do you think of Abigail Disney, Walt’s great grand daughter, post about agreeing with Streep’s comments?

    • I’m not Amid, but I’ll take the word of people who knew Walt over that of someone who happens to share his name and thinks that The Jungle Book is damning evidence of Walt’s pro-segregationist views… Floyd, you worked on Jungle Book, what do you think? ;)

    • guest

      Abigail Disney is Roy E. Disney’s daughter. Roy E. is Walt’s nephew making his daughter Abigail, Walt’s grand niece. Just FYI

  • Gregorio Baca

    Thank you for sharing this story. I think all of us who continue to enjoy these great animated films owe a lot to the women who worked on so many of the Walt Disney studio’s early films. People love to bring up the issue that women did most of the Ink and coloring of the animated classics. I was watching a show called brain games and it showed that women actually can see colors better than men, which vindicated what Walt instinctively knew.