When 36-year-old Bianca Majolie stood up to present a story pitch to her colleagues at Walt Disney Studios in the winter of 1937, she was nervous as hell. For good reason, it turns out: Walt Disney himself ripped her work off the storyboards, tore up her drawings, and a pack of male story department employees chased her out of the meeting. It didn’t stop there––after Majolie ran inside her own office and locked herself in, the men broke down the door.
This is one of several intimate and revealing stories in Nathalia Holt’s new book, The Queens of Animation: The Untold Story of the Women Who Transformed the World of Disney and Made Cinematic History (Little, Brown, Oct.). “The men decided to tease her and cause her as much emotional distress as they possibly could,” Holt says. “It was an attempt to make life even more difficult for her.”
According to Holt, , the idea for her latest book, which tracks the personal narratives of a handful of influential women who managed to make it into the Walt Disney Studios in the 1930s and ’40s, came while she was working on another project. She had interviewed a woman who had worked at Disney during that time, who told Holt that there were hundreds of women working for the studio then. “It stayed with me,” she said.
But when Holt tried to read more on the subject, she came up empty. Researching her book was tricky, she says, because of the problem she addresses in the book itself—the lack of acknowledgment of the women at Walt Disney Studios. For starters, these women’s names were often left off of the credits. Indeed, the standard rejection letter for animation gigs at the studio then read: “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 men.”
And even when newspapers mentioned the women, who often worked in Disney’s Ink and Paint department, the only creative department open to women at the time, their names would be omitted. “It really bothered me that they had not been recognized,” Holt says. Because of this, and given that all of the book’s primary subjects are deceased, most of her material comes from interviews with family and friends of the women, as well as digging through old photo albums, letters, memos, and diaries.
“I was struck by the fact that they persevered under some of these difficult conditions and were able to make such beautiful artwork,” she says. Still, according to Holt, it wasn’t always discriminatory––sometimes, Walt Disney himself recruited and trained women for creative work. And for women of this era to work outside of the home at all was an anomaly.
Holt is motivated by her desire to uncover parts of history that have been excluded. “When we lose that perspective on who we have been in history, and the fact that we’ve had large numbers of women in these fields,” she says, “it really takes away from what we think we can do now.” She believes it’s critical for everyone to know that women have always played a role in Hollywood animation.
It’s impossible to read Holt’s account without thinking of the current climate in Hollywood. While Holt doesn’t spend much time on the Harvey Weinstein–era sexual misconduct allegations, she still sees a lesson from these earlier days. The most critical part, Holt believes, is looking at the powerful effect of having women work in the story department. Women, she writes, played a pivotal role in creating the 1940 animated film Fantasia, for instance. Majolie made vital contributions to the famous “Nutcracker Suite” scene in the movie—and also translated the novel The Adventures of Pinocchio for Disney’s animated film adaptation. Another artist, Sylvia Holland, worked on the Nutcracker storyboard (Majolie and Holland were Disney’s first two women storyboard artists). But the Fantasia project, overall, included contributions from a multitude of women in the background.
“Because there are more women there, all working together,” Holt says, “this was a very significant moment when the environment begins to shift.”
Digging up such stories is nothing new for Holt. After working as an HIV researcher for a decade––Holt holds a PhD in molecular biology––she made the switch from research to writing, and her work has covered a range of subjects. But they have a common thread: her stories highlight important figures who have been invisible.
Holt’s first book, 2014’s Cured: The People Who Defeated HIV, tells the true story of two Berlin men whose cases, separately, helped provide groundbreaking insight into how HIV could be treated. Holt’s next book idea came to her as she was researching names for her baby. “I ended up coming across this group of women who worked at NASA during its earliest days, and I just became obsessed with finding them and learning more about them.” This effort led to 2016’s Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us from Missiles to the Moon to Mars and fits squarely in the same category of forgotten women in history. This subject area has been rich in recent years, and has surfaced in bestsellers such as Margot Lee Shetterley’s Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race in 2016 and Liza Mundy’s Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II in 2017.
Rise of the Rocket Girls, like The Queens of Animation, casts light on the deep involvement of women who were once written out of the history books––in this case, in the field of space exploration. Holt sees it as “such a privilege to be able to research and write these stories, especially about women in history who so often get neglected. And so it’s nice that there is now a renewed focus on finding out stories about all kinds of people that have been left out of history.”
“These are not simply fairy tales,” Holt says. “They are part of our culture, and they really shape how we see ourselves.”
While our current moment is full of reminders of the important role women have played in innovations in science and technology, and efforts like the nonprofit organization Girls Who Code are aimed squarely at addressing the gender discrepancy in these fields, Holt says that the number of women in animation today is actually worse than in computer science. “This is surprising, because about 60% of all students who study animation in our schools in the United States are women, but only 23% of animators in Hollywood are women,” she says. “That number is really appalling—and it’s a shame, because women bring a unique perspective.”
Animation, according to Holt, is a hard-bitten world to survive in. “Even today, it can be very intense.” This kind of environment can produce detrimental effects for entire teams. Studies have shown, Holt says, that when you are a woman in a field that is mostly men, “it can create an environment where people tend to attack the person.”
However, she adds: “Things really become better for women when there are more of them.”
Hope Reese is a journalist in Louisville, Ky., who contributes to JSTOR Daily, Longreads, Undark, Vice, Vox, and other publications.