The Rejection Letter Disney Sent In 1938 To A Woman Who Wanted To Be An Animator

January 10, 2014 by
disney letter header
CareerDisneyHistoryWomen's Rights

Meryl Streep made headlines this week for her “controversial” feminist speech while presenting an award to Emma Thompson at the National Board of Review Awards for her role in Saving Mr. Banks. Although the speech took some folks by surprise, for us, it was just another ovation worthy moment that showcased Ms. Streep’s regular feminist critique of Hollywood that she’s been speaking about for years.

In the speech, Streep called Walt Disney a “gender bigot” and referenced a 1938 job rejection letter sent from the company to a young woman animator seeking employment at the famed studio.

“Women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen, as that task is performed entirely by young men.” The letter starts off by telling young Mary Ford, “Women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen, as that task is performed entirely by young men. For this reason, girls are not considered for the training school.”

It goes on to explain that, “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.”

And if that wasn’t enough, the woman who wrote the letter on the company’s behalf told Ms. Ford not “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.”

BAM! Way to crush a young woman’s dreams.

The letter was discovered by Ms. Ford’s family after she passed away. Her grandson, Kevin Burg, posted it on Flickr in 2009 and it has since garnered over half a million views. “We discovered it and were surprised at how well it was preserved for being nearly 70 years old. The letter speaks for itself and it’s remarkable to note how times have changed since then.”

It really comes as no surprise to us that this letter exists and that there was rampant sexism at the Disney company in 1938, as that was likely the sentiment at most large companies at the time. But seeing the actual letter in print is a good reminder that although women have made significant strides in the last 75 years in regard to gender parity in the workplace, there is still more work to be done.

disney letter

  • gargouille

    Well, look at the two caricatures of womanhood (not to mention manhood) on the stationary and then be glad women were not hired to work there and perpetuate those images without the right to rage against them. I say women dodged a bullet through Disney’s misogyny. Now, the noxious *effect* of those animations in film is another problem entirely….

  • Tara

    What makes this even worse is the fact that a woman actually sent this letter to Mary Ford. I would like to know what position Mary Cleave had at Disney. There is no job title shown, and it appears that she typed the letter herself. (Note the initials at the bottom left.) One would think that she would have gone to bat for other women.

    • Brith

      Ms Cleave merely states that it is not Company policy to hire girls for anything other than the position inker or painter.. Ms Cleave is probably just an assistant, with permisson to reply to appplicants rejected by her supervisor. In fact, I would argue that Ms Cleave is actually trying to advise Miss Ford about common practice in the cartoon industry at the time, by telling her how to become an inker/painter, but to have a back up plan, should she fail to do so, as the competition is fierce. You could argue that Ms Cleave is trying to change the World a Little by dissent, as she could just have told the applicant that she was not succesful on this occasion and left it at that

  • pscottcummins

    Interesting, since my wife’s Grandmother worked as an animator in Hollywood (Warner Bros. Looney Tunes, Hanna-Barbera Productions, and was at Disney from 1952 until her retirement in 1966). She trained as a commercial artist and photographer in Minneapolis, and then went to Los Angeles to pursue her dreams, which she did with gusto working on many of the classic cartoon series in the 30′s and 40′s, and after that the great Disney animated features. She was a friend of Walt, and retired the year after he passed away. In some ways, after Walt passed, the work was not the same for her. The records are all there in the Disney archives. I’d like to see Meryl Streep keep in mind that one letter does not an historical conclusion draw.

    • beezskis

      It would be interesting if your example didn’t occur 14 years after this letter.

      • pscottcummins

        What is “interesting” is that Meryl Streep chose to stridently judge Walt Disney’s character based on this letter. All I am adding is a touchpoint from the era that differs from Streep’s viewpoint. I’m not trying to play gotcha, how about you?

        • Guest

          People who pay attention to history, it is evident that the structure of society in the post-war boom of the ’50s had changed significantly from the pre-war severe depression of the ‘Dirty Thirties’ – they are not even remotely of the same era. The Disney letter is not a ‘one-off’; it expresses the ‘no women’ policy of Walt Disney Studios (young men do the animation work, not young woman). That policy meant that NO young woman, not just the one to whom this letter is addressed, would have been able to become an animator for Walt Disney at that time.
          .

        • Victoria Reeve

          To people who pay attention to history, it is evident that the structure of society in the post-war boom of the ’50s had changed significantly from the pre-war severe depression of the ‘Dirty Thirties’ – they are not even remotely of the same era. The Disney letter is not a ‘one-off’; it expresses the ‘no women’ policy of Walt Disney Studios (young men do the animation work, not young woman). That policy meant that NO young woman, not just the one to whom this letter is addressed, would have been able to become an animator for Walt Disney at that time.

  • Fuuckerbee McGill

    Funny that the letter was signed by a woman and not Walt Disney. Maybe Disney himself didn’t even know this was going on? Way to jump to conclusions Meryl Streep! I will be avoiding your movies from now on since clearly you are a gender bigot and assumed a man wrote the letter when it was clearly a woman (And she even signed it!).

  • zoe

    It’s a form letter, as you can see the salutation does not line up with the body of the text.

  • http://www.davidtucker.me/ David Tucker

    Interesting that this was the policy in 1938 but Mary Blair, one of Disney’s greats, was hired in 1940. Not arguing validity just adding to the research.

  • http://www.davidtucker.me/ David Tucker

    After doing a little bit of my own research it appears that this is a boilerplate reply http://photos1.blogger.com/blogger/4081/2333/1600/I%26PLetter.jpg Also, apparently the line “All inking and painting of celluloids, and all tracing done in the Studio is perfomed exclusively by a large staff of girls known as Inkers and Painters… This is the only department in the Disney Studio open to women artists.” is directly from the “The Disney Artist Tryout Book” from that timeframe.

  • kc

    Does anyone know what Mary Ford went on to do?

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