Lillian Disney was born Lillian Bounds. She worked in the Ink and Paint department. Famously, she suggested the name “Micky,” not liking the name “Mortimer.” She worked on “Plane Crazy,” one of the first Mickey Mouse shorts. She was not the only woman working in the department to marry a man working for the company; she just happened to marry the most advantageously. And, of course, all the people working in the department were women; it was almost the only job for women at Disney.
It is, let us be clear, exaggerated as to how long the only production job in the studio available to women was in Ink and Paint. World War II did not leave the Disney Studios untouched any more than anywhere else. Mary Blair was an animator in the ’40s in part because of the strength of her work, not just because, you know, well over a hundred men from the studio went to war. It’s also true that xerography made inroads in the need for the job in the first place. Still, at a time where there were not a lot of jobs at all, that place at least was open to women.
In fact, the Disney films that forged the studio would not exist without the women of the Ink and Paint department. According to a Vanity Fair article, during the making of Snow White, painter Grace Godino would find herself standing there, undressed and unable to remember if she was putting her clothes on or taking them off. The women were of course not unionized; the Disney union struggles just prior to the war did not leave them untouched. To this day, they remain unsung. But the work they did is part of what makes Disney films as spectacular as they are.
For it was women who gave us things like the flutter of Tinkerbell’s wing. Women, indeed, who made Snow White look the way she does, putting blush in her cheeks and highlights in her hair because the men didn’t know how to make her look the way a woman looks. When the women were moved to the new Disney Studios in Burbank, their department was called the Nunnery, but before then, there had been easy moving between the women of the Ink and Paint and the men of everywhere else in the studio, and there were marriages. But even married, many women stayed with the company; “Plane Crazy” came out after Lillian got married.
I don’t intend to glamorize those days. The women of the Ink and Paint department worked hard. Long, exhausting hours, especially in the crunch before movies were to come out. They were paid far, far less than the men, and it did take fifteen years and change before a woman was able to step out of the room and into another, higher room, a room with better pay and the possibility of credit for one’s own work. It is incredibly easy to picture the women so exhausted that they fell asleep on their scant fifteen-minute breaks, the women without whom there was no glow of colour on film, just pencil lines dancing. The women whose names, by and large, remain unspoken.
For many decades, Lillian was just Walt’s wife, at most the woman who changed Mortimer to Mickey. But before that, she was one of many. Women who cherished the clean lines of Pluto because he was easy to ink. Women whose aspiration was to have one of the colours named after them. Women who airbrushed pixie wings, made flowers float from cel to cel instead of jerking, and in time did work for the military that was so secret they had to be locked into the studio. Let the one stand in for the many, and let the Ink and Paint department be not forgotten.