Nine Most Important Women in Disney History
The famous men at The Walt Disney Company receive most of the headlines, which speaks to some regrettable aspects of 20th century media coverage.
However, women have worked for the company since its earliest days. In fact, Walt Disney once said the following:
“I honestly believe that (women) may eventually contribute something to this business that men never would or could.”
That’s high praise, and it leads to a fascinating discussion. Which women have achieved the goals that Uncle Walt laid out for them in 1941?
Here are my picks for the nine most important women in Disney history.
Something I admire about Mary Blair is that she did the unthinkable. When she wasn’t satisfied with her role at Disney, she left.
The visionary artist worked on Dumbo and Lady and the Tramp during the early days before resigning after Peter Pan’s production.
While she worked on several successful advertising campaigns, Walt Disney lamented her absence. He eventually coaxed her to return.
Blair came back for an exciting project, the 1964 New York World’s Fair. She designed many of the set elements for a little boat ride called It’s a Small World.
Later, the Disney Legend created the multi-story mural that resides at the Grand Concourse of Disney’s Contemporary Resort.
During the early 1950s, Harriet Burns took her husband and infant daughter west to Las Vegas. After only a couple of years, she went even further west.
There, she hooked on with a fledgling new technology company called WED Enterprises.
The day she was hired, Burns shattered a glass ceiling. Harriet Burns became the first female Imagineer ever.
Her initial job involved constructing sets and props for the Mickey Mouse Club. A man named Fred Joerger liked her work and offered her a job.
The two of them because two-thirds of the original Imagineering team, along with Wathel Rogers.
Burns built scale models of upcoming classic Disneyland attractions like Matterhorn Bobsleds and Submarine Voyage.
She worked for Disney for 31 years and became the first woman to receive a window display on Main Street, U.S.A.!
You may not know the name, but you’d recognize the voice. The late Adriana Caselotti earned the title of Disney Legend in 1994 due to her contributions.
Specifically, Caselotti provided the voice for Snow White in Disney’s feature-length animated movie, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
That production demonstrates Walt Disney’s progressive thinking, as he did more than make a full-length film cartoon. He also chose a woman as the star.
Even today, we don’t see enough casting along those lines, yet Walt was doing it all the way back in 1937!
Sure, you’ve heard all about Marc Davis, the Imagineer responsible for characters in attractions like Haunted Mansion and Jungle Cruise.
But what can you tell me about his wife? You should know this one, as Alice Davis is a Disney Legend, too.
In fact, her award happened within the past decade! Disney finally provided a long-overdue award for her work in costume design.
Davis created the costumes on Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress and worked with Mary Blair on It’s a Small World, too!
Notably, she’d wanted to become a cartoonist. Alas, fate intervened, as the war caused a two-year waiting period for that major.
Davis became a costume designer instead, meeting her husband when they worked together briefly on Sleeping Beauty. She didn’t even work for Disney at the time!
In a way, the Disney family features two patriarchs, Walt and older brother Roy.
However, there’s only one matriarch across the Disney empire. Lillian Disney carved out her own path to celebrity.
In fact, Mrs. Disney worked as an inker for the company’s cartoons in 1928! She started at almost precisely the same time as Minnie Mouse!
In later years, Disney’s charitable contributions led to the creation of Walt Disney Concert Hall and something even more critical.
She was one of several celebrities who assisted in the funding of The California Institute of the Arts.
Yes, the place that trained an entire generation of new animators, including several Pixar icons, happened because of Lillian Disney!
Note: I could have picked Walt’s daughters and grandchildren as well.
However, I decided that I should stick to a single blood relative. Otherwise, the list would grow unwieldy in size.
Let’s talk major awards for a moment. Jennifer Lee has won an Annie, a BAFTA, and an Oscar for her work as a director/storyteller. Not bad, eh?
All this happened thanks to a temporary gig in Burbank. A college friend asked Lee to assist him in writing a little movie called Wreck-It Ralph.
The rest of the story involves great timing and otherworldly talent. Lee followed up that movie with her directorial debut, Frozen. Yeah.
Since the Frozen franchise arrived, Disney has majored in Elsa Princess Costumes and minored in Let It Go singalongs.
Not coincidentally, Lee’s star rose at the company to the point that something remarkable happened.
Jennifer Lee earned the title of Chief Creative Officer at Walt Disney Animation Studios, the first woman in the role.
Since then, all she’s done is direct the most successful animated movie of all time and start dating Alfred Molina. She’s living her best life.
Fittingly, Jennifer Lee has won more major awards than her boyfriend, though. And I hope she reminds him of that every day.
Dorothea Holt Redmond
I have to include this woman, as the only thing I love as much as Disney is the collective filmography of Alfred Hitchcock.
Dorothea Holt Redmond qualifies as the rare artist who worked with both icons. First, she worked with Hitchcock on 1940’s Rebecca.
Later, she contributed sets and even some illustrations for my two favorite Hitchcock movies, Rear Window and To Catch a Thief.
Afterward, Disney hired her to handle staging and design for parts of Disneyland. And you know one of them well.
Redmond designed the New Orleans Square apartment where Walt Disney intended to live. Later, she did the same at Fantasyland in Magic Kingdom.
Perhaps no one on this list deserves to have a higher Disney profile than Dorothea Holt Redmond. Her influential style has stood the test of time.
Anika Noni Rose
The other voice actor on this list, Anika Noni Rose, made history simply by being herself.
The beloved Broadway performer transitioned to movies several times, most notably in Dreamgirls.
Soon afterward, Disney chose her to provide the voice of Tiana in The Princess and the Frog.
For the first time, children of color could see someone who looked like them in a lead role in a Disney animated movie.
An entire generation reveres Rose for her work in the movie, and Disney loves it so much that Splash Mountain is receiving a re-theme based on it.
Soon, you can experience The Princess and the Frog at Splash Mountain and appreciate Rose’s performance anew!
One of my favorite Disney anecdotes involves a trivia question. I ask people if they can name the Imagineer who appears on Haunted Mansion.
The quiz question works sorta like the Doctor and Son Riddle. People mentally cycle through all the male Imagineers, missing the obvious.
Yes, you know Madame Leota from a crystal ball. However, Imagineers duplicated the face of Leota Toombs.
This fascinating woman started her career at Disney in 1940 when she joined the Ink and Paint department.
A few years later, she switched divisions, a move that led to staggering repercussions across generations.
Toombs met fellow Imagineer, Harvey Toombs, and they got married. She quit soon afterward to raise their two children, one of whom you may know.
Kim Irvine has worked at Disney since 1990 and recently had a hand in the development of Snow White’s Enchanted Wish.
An Imagineer, Irvine comes by the title naturally, as both her parents were Imagineers as well.
In 1962, Toombs returned to Disney, where the Haunted Mansion project struggled to get off the ground.
While Toombs worked on Pirates of the Caribbean at New Orleans Square, Yale Gracey struggled with his weird idea, a talking head in a jar.
Ultimately, he asked his friend, Leota, to do him a favor, and the rest is Disney history.
To this day, Kim Irvine can still hear her mother’s voice each time she visits Haunted Mansion. That’s gotta be weird, right?
…and Minnie Mouse!
Okay, this list is only supposed to include nine dynamic women. However, I’d be remiss if I didn’t include the one whose elegant style has defined Disney.
The polka dot queen, Minnie Mouse, deserves mention for the way that she’s provided representation for female Disney fans since 1928!
Yes, Minnie turns 100 in a few years, but she still looks Forever 21, right?