The following letter was written on this day in 1938, and was actually the first ever entry on the old Letters of Note blog back in September of 2009. Enormous thanks to Kevin Burg, Mary’s grandson.
In 1938, a 21-year-old art graduate and aspiring animator named Mary Ford aimed high and applied for a job at arguably the greatest animation studio on Earth: Disney. This dispiriting reply she soon received, in which she was told to instead shoot for a lower star in the tracing department, was in fact a standard form rejection letter sent to all female applicants at a time when the “Nine Old Men”—a legendary group of animators responsible for some of Disney’s greatest hits—were churning out masterpiece after masterpiece. It would be another four years until Disney’s first female animator, Retta Scott, worked on Bambi.
Mary Ford never worked in animation, instead choosing to teach art to middle school students in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. After Mary’s death in 2003, her family discovered this letter in a box in her basement.
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 Indian 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
[Signed by ‘Mary Cleave’]
Yes… the infamous “Nine Old Men”… 😑 But a little misleading. Walt really was incredibly supportive of the women artists at Disney, and he was very pro-active about hiring, and promoting them. He was also very open about the fact that the incomparable Mary Blair was his favorite artist of all of them. Hands down. Walt was not a misogynist.
Mary Blair was hired just two short years later in 1940. She created concept paintings for projects related to Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941), and The Lady and the Tramp (1955). Also, Peter Pan, and It’s a Small World in its entirety.
She was at the top, HIGHLY valued, and designed virtually everything Disney.
I know the “women work in the ink dept only” was a thing, but it was very short lived.
There are innumerable other famous female Disney artists, including Leota Toombs (her real name)… who started working in 1940 as an Imagineer, and eventually for WED in sculpting the figures used in the animatronics. She also became famous as the face and voice for the floating head in the crystal ball at the Haunted Mansion.
I have encountered this many times in my life, including when I applied to Art Center in Pasadena (early 1980’s), and had the woman at the front desk tell me not to waste my time applying, I would never get in, they only accepted art students with at least some college level design experience.
I just moved on to Parsons. I then actually applied to Art Center again after I was at Parsons, with many of my high school portfolio pieces, and the admissions guy said “Why in the hell didn’t you apply here right out of high school??”
It is amazing how one person can alter the trajectory of a persons life.
My advice… if you **really** want it, step past the person telling you no and just keep going. 💛
Can you imagine getting away with such a letter today? Yikes.