At the core of UNLADYLIKE2020 are the rich biographies of 26 trailblazing American women who broke barriers in male-dominated fields at the turn of the 20th century, such as science, business, politics, journalism, sports, and the arts, including the first woman to found a hospital on a Native American reservation, serve in the U.S. Congress, become a bank president, earn an international pilot’s license, lead scientific expeditions in the Arctic, sing opera at Carnegie Hall, or direct a feature-length movie. Presenting history in a bold new way, we bring extraordinary stories of daring and persistence back to life through rare archival imagery, captivating original artwork and animation, and interviews with historians, descendants, and accomplished women of today who reflect upon the influence of these pioneers.
Narrated by Julianna Margulies (ER, The Good Wife) and Lorraine Toussaint (Selma, Orange is the New Black), the series of 8-to-10 minute animated documentary shorts will be released digitally weekly by PBS’s flagship biography series American Masters from March 4 to August 26, 2020, Women’s Equality Day. In addition to the digital series, American Masters will premiere a one-hour television special on PBS on July 10, 2020, illuminating the stories of trailblazers in politics and civil rights. To deepen the impact of the project, there will also be a resource-rich interactive website; a U.S. history curriculum for grades six through 12 on PBS LearningMedia, and a nationwide community engagement and screening initiative in partnership with public television stations and community organizations. You can learn more about upcoming events and how to host a screening in your community here.
The mission of UNLADYLIKE2020 is to inspire, engage and educate audiences in an untold narrative: how women, and in particular women of color, changed America 100+ years ago — paving the way for future generations to do many ‘unladylike’ things. Because the women we feature were behaving in ways that placed them outside the mainstream of expected behaviors for ‘ladies’ at the time, the title for the series is derived from the negative perceptions which their contemporaries typically held of them. As journalist and political activist Louise Bryant (1885-1936) proclaimed in 1919, “I do not want to be treated like a lady, but I want to be treated as a human being,” and as historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich echoed in the 1970s, “well-behaved women seldom make history.”
At the turn of the 20th century, women in the United States did not have the full right to vote, and had only recently won the right to own property or get divorced. They faced limited career and educational choices, were often expected to provide all of the childcare, and in some parts of the country could even be arrested for wearing pants in public. Women who worked outside of the home were usually single, widowed, divorced, poor, or women of color who had to contend not only with sexism but also severe racial discrimination.
But conditions were ripe for newfound freedoms. It was the so-called Progressive Era, and the decades from the 1890s through the 1920s were a time of rapid urbanization, industrialization, technological advancement, and reform that resulted in significant changes to the country’s social, political, cultural, and economic institutions. Women broke into new professions, stepped into leadership roles, and fought for suffrage and an end to race discrimination. While these trailblazers lived more than a century ago, we hope that their stories of overcoming unimaginable societal forces and conditions will model extraordinary persistence, courage, and leadership for the girls and women, and boys and men, of today.
By UNLADYLIKE2020 Creator and Director Charlotte Mangin:
“Several years ago my two boys and I discovered a non-fiction picture book titled Soar Elinor by Tami Lewis Brown. We were fascinated to learn for the very first time about Elinor Smith, who in 1927, at age 16, became the youngest licensed pilot in the world. When the men at her airfield expressed doubt that ‘a girl could fly,’ she took up a dare: to fly under a bridge. Doing aerial stunts, or barnstorming, was a popular form of entertainment at the time. To truly prove herself, Elinor ended up flying under all 4 bridges of New York’s East River! Dodging boat traffic in a rickety biplane, when she flew under the Brooklyn Bridge she had to tip sideways to squeeze in between two oncoming boats. The stunt earned her the nickname “Flying Flapper.” She went on to become a celebrated test pilot who broke many endurance records and worked with NASA on shuttle landing simulators late in her career.
By the end of reading this story, I was in tears. Inspired, but also deeply frustrated. Why had I never heard of Elinor Smith? Why was her story not part of mainstream history?
So I started to research Elinor Smith, and she led me to other aviators, and they led me to women in other professions at the turn of the 20th century. What I uncovered was a treasure trove of life stories, each more extraordinary than the next, of rebellious, persistent, and daring — unladylike! — women from all walks of life who overcame severe sexism and racism to pave the way for future generations of empowered women. What blew me away most of all is that a majority of the exceptional but little-known women I came across were women of color. I can only imagine the courage and determination it took to do what they did!
When I realized that the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage was coming up in 2020, I knew there couldn’t be a more fitting time to return these stories to their rightful place in U.S. history, and ensure they are never forgotten again. I want UNLADYLIKE2020 to profoundly change our collective understanding of American history and of women’s history, and hope you will be as inspired as I am by these unsung heroes.”