In 1938, Walt Disney Productions wrote a letter to a female applicant and turned down her request to enroll in the training programme because she was a woman. This letter received some attention in the past years. Meryl Streep, for instance, held a "nine-minute tour-de-force" speech at the National Board of Review dinner in 2014. In her speech, she read the letter and called Disney a "gender bigot" (via and via).
The same year, The Walt Disney Family Museum reacted by putting the letter into historical context and stating that the limited role of women in the workplace in the 1930s was culturally accepted, i.e. "normal".
"At that time, most companies in America were mostly male-dominated with women providing smaller support roles. There were several prominent women within Walt Disney Productions, well before WWII made women the backbone of the American workforce. In speeches made to his employees on February 10 and 11, 1941, Walt observed that women artists could fully equal their male counterparts, and were being included in his studio animation training program. (...) Hazel Sewell served as an art director on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which was released in 1937—a year before the letter mentioned above was dated." (The Walt Disney Family Museum)In the 1930s and 1940s, "men and women were relegated to very specific roles in the animated film process". Creative men worked in the Animation Department while creative women worked in the Ink and Paint Department. About 100 women mostly under the age of 25 worked in this department, the inkers were called the "queens" of the department (via).
"The extent of Walt’s narrow casting—and prejudices—from political beliefs to religion to gender has been the subject of much conjecture. Rae, an outstanding high-school artist, like many of the girls, heard that “each time they were beginning to get good they’ve quit to get married or something. So now he’s thumbs down on girl animators.” “The consensus was that a man has a better feel for action, personality and caricature,” said a later story about Disney female employees in a Hollywood newspaper. But Ruthie knew better. “It was a man’s world all over the place,” she said with typically wry candor. “The stars were the beauties who sang and wiggled their fannies around—that’s all girls were useful for.”"
Patricia Zohn, Vanity Fair
June 7, 1938
Miss Mary V. Ford
Dear Miss Ford:
Your letter of recent date has been received in the Inking and Painting Department for reply.
Women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen, as that work is performed entirely by young men. For this reason girls are not considered for the training school.
The only work open to women consists of tracing the characters on clear celluloid sheets with India ink and filling in the tracings on the reverse side with paint according to directions.
In order to apply for a position as "Inker" or "Painter" it is necessary that one appear at the Studio, bringing samples of pen and ink and water color work. It would not be advisable to come to Hollywood with the above specifically in view, as there are really very few openings in comparison with the number of girls who apply.
Yours very truly,
Walt Disney Productions, Ltd.
Here is another rejection letter from 1939: LINK
“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.”Today, the Walt Disney Company is one of DiversityInc Top 50 companies for diversity (via). The company has launched a great many diversity and inclusion initiatives (e.g. the annual Women's Leadership Conference), has 32 Diversity & Inclusion full time staff members (via) and earned 100% on the Diversity Index a few years ago (via).
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