ARTS & CULTURE

The World War II-Era Women Who Broke Up The Disney Boys' Club

In the 1930s and '40s, women were hired in animation jobs formerly held by men. Their path to success was anything but easy.

12/06/2017 13:17 EST | Updated 12/07/2017 10:23 EST
Courtesy Mindy Johnson
Ginni Mack, who worked as an inker, and Walt Disney review production artwork from "Alice in Wonderland," circa 1950.

When Mary Fleener was 8 years old, she was snooping around her family’s basement when she stumbled on a trove of unfinished drawings. They depicted, in undone but strangely fluent lines, iconic Disney characters — Mickey Mouse, Bambi and Goofy, among others. When Mary asked her mother, Virginia, where they came from, Virginia explained that she made them, years ago, while working for Walt Disney.

Mary was floored. She knew her mother only as a stay-at-home mom. “I was like, what?” she recalled in an interview with HuffPost. “You were a cool person who worked for Disney?”

The discovery of the trashed Disney drawings astounded Mary, now a successful comic artist in her 60s, for two reasons. First, there was the shocking realization that her mother had a secret career as a professional animator. Just as confounding, however, was the subsequent revelation that every single frame of every single animated movie she loved was made by a human hand. “It hit me that this stuff was drawn by people,” she said.

By people, yes. And often, in some way or another, by women.

Courtesy Mindy Johnson
Color Model Supervisor Helen Siebert works on "Fun & Fancy Free," circa 1947.

According to Walt Disney himself, women were ideal candidates for his company’s early ink and paint department, responsible for bringing dimension, depth, detail and color to early 20th-century animators’ drawings. Mindy Johnson writes as much in her book Ink & Paint: The Women of Walt Disney’s Animation. Sure, it was the animators, predominantly men, who were responsible for drafting Disney characters’ initial forms and movements ― and as the originators, they were viewed as the “most-skilled artists,” Johnson notes. But it was the inkers and painters who stepped in after the animators’ job was done, to refine and enhance their designs.

The jobs required immense composure and precision, traits frequently associated with femininity at the time. As a press release from Walt Disney Studios in the 1920s explained, “Girls not only have more patience and a finer sense for detail, line, and color — they have infinitely more patience to do a more finished type of work so necessary for this work on celluloids.”

In the 1920s and throughout the 1930s, the ink and paint department was the only creative department in the Disney Studios open to women. Even more disheartening, the department recruited only those under the age of 35. One call for artists from the time, discovered by Johnson, reads: “Women over thirty-five have shown that their muscles start to stiffen and that they cannot master a pen and brush technique so well as younger girls.”

Around 1934, however, Disney began to make more of a concerted effort to incorporate women into the workplace. Beyond working as secretaries and stenographers, a few also climbed the ranks of the company’s creative fields. Bianca Majolie started at Disney that year, eventually becoming the first woman to work as a storyboard artist, the lone woman in a room with 15 men. While the men prided themselves on slapstick humor and silly gags, Majolie incorporated emotion into her story arcs, which would become a staple of Disney’s animation formula. She eventually created story outlines for classics like “Cinderella” and “Peter Pan.” Hazel Sewell, Walt Disney’s sister-in-law, also made waves as an art director in the 1920s, working on films like “Snow White” and “Bambi.” 

Yet the majority of women still worked in ink and paint, where they were separated out from the rest of their colleagues in a self-contained wing of Disney’s Burbank offices. Johnson believes the gender segregation stemmed, in part, from an effort to keep women ― new to the workplace environment dominated by men ― relatively comfortable. But the quarantine was also a safety precaution. The ink and paint department worked with nitrate cellulose, a highly flammable material, so it was necessary for the department’s employees to operate in a contained workspace. If a cigarette-smoking animator were to drop by, for example, he could set the department alight.  

“Even the slightest speck of dust, on screen, looked like a boulder,” Johnson told HuffPost. “You couldn’t have people traipsing though; it had to be a controlled and contained environment. 

“This was not Betty Crocker’s kitchen,” she added. “This was Madame Curie’s lab.”

Courtesy Mindy Johnson
Hazel Sewell leads Disney's ink and paint department, circa 1934.

Since she was a young child, Virginia Fleener dreamed of being a costume designer, of translating her love of drawing into some kind of career. “My mother was a seamstress,” the 95-year-old told HuffPost. “I grew up loving the feel of materials.”

But Fleener’s aspirations changed course when she entered college, fell in love and got married. “I decided I wanted to have some children and be a housewife, a homemaker,” she said. Then in 1941, less than a year after her wedding, Fleener’s husband was drafted by the Navy to fight in World War II. Like many women at the time, Fleener suddenly found herself in need of a job.

Meanwhile, the war had thrown Disney’s cartooning department into chaos. Some employees enlisted, others were drafted, and those who remained were relegated to making war-related training videos. Almost overnight, Johnson said, the campus came to resemble a military base. Employees had to wear ID badges, as well as sign in and sign out every day.

“You didn’t know what you were working on because, in order to keep the studio going, they were making a lot of military training films, a lot of which were top secret,” Johnson said. 

As for the ink and paint department, it was down to almost half its size in ’41 compared to the year prior. So the Disney Studios began distributing messages to local art schools throughout Los Angeles and placing ads in local papers. One read: “Do you want a career in art? Walt Disney needs young women who have had training in pen and ink work, now! A real opportunity for the girl who excels.”

Virginia Fleener saw one such ad, applied and ― at 20 years old ― got the gig. “It was a very nice place to work at the time,” Fleener recalled. “One time I got on the elevator, and there was Walt Disney!”

She began in the ink and paint department in 1942, but just a few weeks later, Fleener was transferred to the animation department, the section of Disney off limits to women a decade before. “The Studio will lose quite a few of its men to the armed forces,” detailed a 1942 memo from the Walt Disney Studios archives. “Should many more be called, it is not impossible that girls will be trained for jobs now held only by men.”

Soon women were working in the camera and editorial departments, and because Disney was unionized, the women were able to vie for fair compensation. “They put down their brushes and picked up pencils,” Johnson said.

After the war, however, many men returned to their previous Disney posts, pushing women back into inking and painting. Their pay, if increased in the war-time era, was docked as well, Johnson said.

Fleener doesn’t remember feeling discriminated against at her workplace. When asked if she ever faced sexism or any sort of gender-based harassment, she responded, “We didn’t think that way then. We heard about things going on in Hollywood. There was always gossip, but we didn’t know whether it was true.”

Courtesy Mary Fleener
A drawing of Donald Duck done by Virginia Fleener.

Fleener was one of the first women to break into the boys’ club of animation, and many more followed suit. Jane Baer started working at Disney in 1954 as an animator for “Sleeping Beauty.” At 20 years old, Baer was one of 10 women brought on for the film, all of whom worked together in a big room Baer referred to as the “bullpen.” She is the only one still alive today.

“They thought hiring girls was a good idea because we had the right delicate touch to do the fine lines on princess Aurora,” Baer told HuffPost.

Baer, now 83, grew up in Winnipeg, Canada, where she lived what she called a “regular life.” Her parents had saved enough money to send one of their children to college ― Baer’s brother. “Why waste it on a girl?” Baer said. “In their minds, I would just get married and have babies and that would be that.”

Although her father had encouraged her to take art classes growing up, he never considered the possibility that his daughter could see drawing as anything more than a hobby. “We were expected to be stenographers and secretaries ― to get married and have babies,” Baer said. “My mother never worked after she got married, never drove a car. It was just different.”

Yet Baer, who described herself as “very stubborn,” was undeterred. Set on becoming an artist like her dad, Baer decided the first step on her path to a career was attending the ArtCenter College of Design in California. “If I was told I couldn’t do something, I would try to do it,” she said. “My father wouldn’t finance my ArtCenter venture, but I was going to do it one way or another.”

Baer was accepted to ArtCenter and paid tuition herself with money she earned working as a graphic designer at the time. She bunked with an older Texan woman who had recently gone through her fifth divorce, and Baer earned her keep by cooking and cleaning. Shortly after she graduated, luckily enough, Disney was hiring.

The women working on “Sleeping Beauty” became fast friends, in part, Baer said, because the competitive atmosphere common in male-dominated workspaces was absent. Like Baer, many of the women she worked with were raised to be secretaries, wives and mothers.

“We didn’t have any aspirations to do anything more than what we were doing,” she said. “We weren’t discouraged but we also weren’t encouraged to become top animators. We were content, to a degree, doing what we did.”

Although gender stereotypes potentially capped Baer’s ambition, she said her experiences with men in the workplace were overall positive. “The [men] would come by after lunch and tease [the women] and keep us from working,” she said. “We got blamed for encouraging it. But there was no sexual stuff that I was aware of. There were no Harvey Weinsteins, at least to my knowledge. The old men treated us very nicely.”

Baer worked on Disney films including “The Black Cauldron” and “The Prince and the Pauper.” In 1984, she opened her own animation studio, Baer Animation, with her husband at the time, Dale Baer. She later worked on the iconic “Who Filmed Roger Rabbit,” creating the dizzying Toon Town sequence. But it was Baer’s first film, “Sleeping Beauty,” that inspired a young Gretchen Albright when she was a kid.

Courtesy Mindy Johnson
Artist Gyu Fujikawa works on a "Fantasia" product, circa 1939.

The classic fairy tale was Albright’s favorite movie. “I’d pretend I was getting the characters ready for their performance with these stickers my mom got me,” she recalled.

Albright, now 67, was drawn to the film industry from a young age, in part because her father worked as a grip for 50 years. She never imagined herself pursuing animation, but in 1972, after she’d graduated from UCLA with a French degree, she saw Disney was hiring in their Xerox department. She applied and got the job. “It’s not like the Xerox machine that most people are familiar with,” Albright warned. “It is a three-room process.”

Before long, Albright was transferred to the ink and paint department as a painter. To her, the job felt like the grown-up extension of a ritual she cherished so much as a child, dressing up “Sleeping Beauty” stickers in pretty outfits. “In painting you were doing just that,” she said, “putting colors onto the characters so they could perform in their final stages. It was just amazing, I thought, ‘I cannot believe I get paid to do this.’”

Because of her grueling work hours, Albright said, she and the other women in ink and paint “bonded like sisters.” Together, they worked on Disney classics including “The Little Mermaid” and, her personal favorite, “The Lion King.” Albright’s tenure was long enough that she spent time in every part of ink and paint, eventually running the entire division, and proceeded to help usher Disney animators into the digital age. In all her time at Disney, she said, she recalled only one minor incident with a male colleague.

“A male co-worker was carrying this massive phone-looking thing past the paint lab and I made some remark about it being quite large. He said something like, ‘Want to try it out?’ I thought, ‘Oh, that’s not quite the right thing to say.’ But he probably thought he was being funny. It never happened again.”

The Disney offices Albright remembers were still somewhat segregated by gender at the time. When she started there she noticed “there was a club-type thing on the third floor of the animation building that was pretty much men only.” Albright didn’t think too much about it, especially given that her realm of the office was all women. “I was more interested in what we were doing than who we were doing it with,” she added.

Virginia Fleener didn’t recall experiencing any off-color remarks from men at work, but her daughter Mary remembered one strange incident involving, appropriately enough for the animation world, a drawing. Mary said that one day when she was about 21, her mother ducked out of work to go to a dentist appointment. When Virginia returned, there was a drawing on her desk of a woman in a dentist chair with a man peering so deeply into her throat he was inside her. The caption read: “This might hurt a little.”

“There was flirtation back then. It wasn’t all squeaky clean,” Mary said of her mother’s era. “She has a lot of caricatures men drew of her. A lot of these guys were probably up to no good like they are today. Even though they were drawing Bambi, they were dirty old men.”

Baer, Fleener and Albright all attested that their workplaces were, overall, safe spaces for women to cultivate their skills, different from the toxic and misogynist environments described in recent news stories. Earlier this month, Disney Animation head John Lasseter announced that he was taking a leave of absence from Pixar, following accusations of behavior that left his co-workers feeling “disrespected or uncomfortable.” It is possible predatory bosses were not as prevalent in the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s as they appear to be today, but it seems likely the behavior we now recognize as problematic was perceived as normal in mid-century workplaces.

Included in Johnson’s book is an excerpt from a 1919 secretarial guidebook detailing how women should react if their male superiors acted inappropriately. Although it wasn’t culled from the Disney vault, it speaks to the behaviors expected of women at the time. “She must learn not to see that his glance is too fervid, not to feel that hand that rests on hers.” If a woman was to respond, she should do so with “tact and politeness, for it is not the rebuff that counts so much as the way in which it is done.”

Looking back, Baer concluded that Disney was more patriarchal an atmosphere than she realized at the time. But she’s confident that, with time, the climate has changed. “There is still a boys’ club going on, but the door is getting pushed open now, thank God,” she said. “The mindset is opening up and fresh. It isn’t closed to women like it was. Even though it was never spoken about, it was there. You just knew not to push it too much or you’d be classified as a pushy broad. Not today. It’s very encouraging.”

Courtesy Mary Fleener
A drawing a male colleague left on Virginia Fleener's desk. 

Today, Jane Baer is 83, Gretchen Albright is 67 and Virginia Fleener is 95. Many of their co-workers are no longer living, but the three women look with warmth, if not utter amazement, at the next generation of comic artists, especially the women, who have the high expectations and big dreams they didn’t.

“In today’s world, women can do anything,” Baer said. “I went to an animation convention over the weekend and was amazed by the number of young women there with incredible talent interested in all facets of animation. I was blown away. The door is pretty much wide open.”

Today’s young women animators surely benefited from women like Baer, Albright and Fleener, who proved that women have far more to offer the world of animation than a “delicate touch.” Women are now represented in almost every aspect of production, though still in lackluster percentages. In 2015, women made up 10 percent of animation directors and producers, 17 percent of writers, 21 percent of art/designers and 23 percent of animators, according to the Animation Guild. Organizations like Women in Animation are devoted to tipping the scales further; it is currently working toward equal employment for men and women on animation productions by the year 2025.

Mary Fleener, in particular, attributes much of her success to the fact that she grew up with a “mother who did art when she wanted, the way she wanted. I inherited her art genes and I would use her art supplies.”

Mary’s work is a far cry from Virginia’s. Instead of smiley princesses and anthropomorphized woodland creatures, Mary draws bawdy, underground, feminist comics including her semi-autobiographical series “Slutburger Stories.” The name riffs off a derogatory term for a promiscuous woman.

The cover of the first edition of “Slutburger” features a woman in a cubist style, as if made by Picasso’s feminist cousin with a soft spot for hallucinogens. The surreal babe sits in an oversized martini glass, her green, pink, purple and yellow legs fanning out beneath her in multicolored high heels. Her face is a jigsaw puzzle; her many arms cast her as a party girl Kali ― she uses some to pose, others to caress herself, giving shape to the constant multitasking intrinsic to the feminine experience.

There is a magic to Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty,” which tells of beautiful princess Aurora who is cursed by the evil fairy Maleficent to remain in a deep sleep until true love’s kiss awakens her. Yet the classic film, based off the story by Charles Perrault, doesn’t do much for gender representation in 2017. After all, Princess Aurora spends most of the story unconscious. But without an animated character like Aurora, who Disney bosses thought required a woman’s hand to render, there may never have been a Slutburger, bursting out of a martini glass with her nipples exposed.

Aurora might live happily ever after, but Slutburger gets to live on her own terms.

Mary Fleener
Mary Fleener, creator of "Slutburger Stories," attributes much of her success to growing up with an artistic mother.