Music Credit: “NY” written and performed by Kosta, from the album Soul Sand. Used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.
Madeline McCray: Her dream was to become a pilot, but her real ambition was to open up a flying school so that other blacks would be a part of this new industry.
Jo Reed: You just heard an except from aviator Bessie Coleman. It’s the first episode in the series “Unladylike2020,” and this is “Art Works,” the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.
Jo Reed: In these uncertain times, as you hunker down in your home, let me suggest “Unladylike2020.” It’s an innovative, multimedia series launched in honor of the hundredth anniversary of women’s suffrage. It consists of 26 8- to 10-minute short films that each look at a little-known woman from the turn of the 20th Century, who’s left a legacy that we all benefit from today. Combining archival footage with animation, dynamic artwork and first-class narration by actors like Julianna Margulies and Lorrain Toussaint, “Unladylike2020” puts the biographies of women like aviator Bessie Coleman, politician Jeannette Rankin, and actor Anna May Wong, into their historical and social context, while bringing them into the present day with interviews with contemporary women who followed in their footsteps. The episodes of “Unladylike2020” are dropped every Wednesday. It began on March 4th, and it runs through August 26th, and PBS’s “American Masters” will focus on six of the episodes in an hour-long broadcast in July. “Unladylike2020” isn’t just about women. It’s largely made by women, who are leading in every facet of the creative team. It’s the brainchild of the award-winning documentary filmmaker Charlotte Mangin, who’s the creator, director and producer of the project. Here’s her story of how “Unladylike2020” came to be.
Charlotte Mangin: So several years ago I brought my two little boys to the Intrepid Museum, which you may know is this amazing aircraft carrier aviation museum in New York, and we happened to be there on a day that a children’s book author was doing a book launch of a story called “Soar, Elinor!” about Elinor Smith, who I learned that day in the early 1920s was the youngest licensed pilot in the world at age 16.
Jo Reed: <whispers> Oh, my God.
Charlotte Mangin: And-- yes, <laughs> and the men at her airfield on Long Island didn’t believe that, quote, “a girl could fly,” and they dared her to fly under a bridge. This was the time when barnstorming, all these crazy aerial stunts, was becoming all the rage. So she flew under all four bridges of the East River to really prove herself and went on to become this extraordinary test pilot, broke a number of endurance records, later in her career actually worked on NASA on flight simulators, and I was just in awe of this story, so inspired and moved, and also really frustrated. “Why have I never heard of Elinor Smith? I thought there was only Amelia Earhart,” right? So I started to research her and that led me to other women in aviation and then women in other professions, and it just grew and grew and grew into this treasure trove of stories, and then when I realized that the centennial of suffrage was coming up I figured that’s the perfect time peg to look back at, you know, where have we come in the past century, what remains to be done to reach gender parity, and I put together an academic advisory board, so a group of eight historians and women in gender studies experts, to really help me hone in on who to select, because at that point I had researched probably 250 different stories, and I loved them all, and <laughs> it was so hard to...
Jo Reed: That had to have been the hardest part.
Charlotte Mangin: Yeah. But, of course, limited archive was a big component in the choices that we had to make. We had to make sure that there were enough visuals left to be able to bring her story back to life, and that’s when the art came into the picture, which the NEA has generously <laughs> helped fund that part of the project.
Jo Reed: Explain the way you use art in the films.
Charlotte Mangin: Early on I collaborated with an artist, who most of her career has been in museum and gallery work. She had never really worked on a media project before, but she had done some animations, stop-motion animation, you know, really beautiful, hand-drawn feel to it, and so I brought her in to the picture to both bring the black and white archive to life and color and make it feel really hip and exciting to a 21st Century audience, but also to fill in the gaps visually where there just is no archive available to tell certain parts of the story. So sometimes the films go into these dreamscapes that she’s created.
Jo Reed: It’s beautiful. I’ve seen four of them, and it’s really extraordinary the way you combine the archival footage with animation and drawings and the-- it’s very dynamic.
Charlotte Mangin: Thank you. Yeah. We’ve also edited it in a very fast-paced way to, again, make it feel the history’s still alive and relevant today.
Jo Reed: You talked a little bit about the advisory board. What were some of the conversations that went into the process of selecting the women you chose to highlight?
Charlotte Mangin: Sure. Well, we wanted to make sure that there was a real diversity in terms of racial ethnic backgrounds, geographical origins, the professional fields that they chose, and that it really reflected what America was going through in that part of history, you know, at the turn of the 20th Century, which is an era known by historians as the Progressive Era, usually 1890s to the 1920s, and is an era of incredible change, transformation in terms of people moving from rural into city life, so urbanization. Massive immigration from all over the world. Industrialization and all these new job opportunities in factories and an opportunity really for the first time for women to start getting an education beyond just elementary school, and so there’s a lot of firsts happening in that time in U.S. history when it comes to women’s accomplishments. So that was very exciting, so we wanted to make sure we highlighted as many firsts as we could.
Jo Reed: And there were quite a few.
Charlotte Mangin: Yes, <laughs> there were, and part of what the series demonstrates is there are still firsts and sometimes onlys happening today. <laughs> So for instance, with our pilot episode about aviator Bessie Coleman, we interviewed the first and only black woman to fly the U-2 plane for the U.S. Air Force. She’s still the only one, so...
Jo Reed: Which is extraordinary.
Charlotte Mangin: I know.
Jo Reed: And Bessie Coleman, for me, is someone who I discovered five years ago and left with the same feeling you were talking about of, “How do I not know about this woman? How is this possible?” and a frustration about that too.
Charlotte Mangin: Yeah. I think, you know, growing up in my history books, if there were any women featured it was always as a little sidebar in the textbook, and I think there’s a few usual suspects that keep coming up, and part of this project was to break out of that mold and introduce some new names and stories and role models.
Jo Reed: Well, tell us a little bit about Bessie Coleman, since we brought her up.
Charlotte Mangin: Oh, sure. So she was born in Texas, to a sharecropping family, and picked cotton most of her childhood, and as part of the Great Migration moved up to Chicago in the 19-teens to both escape from racial violence in the South and also find new job opportunities, and she ended up working as a manicurist in a barber shop, and one day overheard customers talking about how European women were flying planes in World War I, and she had already heard about Harriet Quimby, who was the first American woman to become an aviator, and she thought, “That’s it. I want to be a pilot too.” Her family was African-American and her father part Cherokee, so she was both native American and African-American, but so being black and being a woman she got rejected from every aviation school she applied to in the U.S., and she found sponsorship from the Chicago Defender, which was the largest black-owned newspaper at the time, and taught herself French through correspondence classes, and took a steamship to France where she trained at the same aviation school that some of those World War I women pilots had trained, and was the first African-American to earn an international pilot’s license and came back to the U.S. and took the country by storm as a barnstormer, these, like I said, these aerial stunts, and was an incredible activist.
<”Unladylike2020” excerpt plays>
Narrator: As she performed around the country, Coleman used her newfound celebrity to take a stand against racism.
Madeline McCray: Bessie Coleman was an activist. She refused to perform in air shows where blacks were not allowed to use the front entrance. Jim Crow laws were very broad. People couldn’t sit together. They couldn’t come in together. She wasn’t having any of that.
Bessie Coleman: Blacks should not have to experience the difficulties I have faced, so I decided to open a flying school and teach other black women to fly, for accidents may happen, and there would be someone to take my place.
Charlotte Mangin: Unfortunately, she passes away at the age of 34, falling out of, you know, the open cockpit of her plane. Her biggest dream to open her own flying school to teach other African-Americans to fly was fulfilled several years after her death by one of her aviation friends and colleagues, and went on to inspire the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II, and it’s an incredible legacy.
Jo Reed: Her story is extraordinary. The fact that she was a manicurist and hears about flying and a woman aviator and just decides, “This is what I’m going to do,” and does it. Extraordinary, and especially during that time, 1919 Red Summer, the horrible lynchings that are happening all across certainly the South, but in the North as well. So it’s such a very difficult moment in American History.
Charlotte Mangin: It sure is, and we’ve really tried to capture that in the series too, so it’s not just celebratory of these women’s lives but also the context of what they were up against, and some of the women that we’ve chosen to feature are complex, or were definitely products of their times. Some of the white women especially.
Jo Reed: I know. I found that interesting. I’m thinking of Lillian Gilbreth, and we should talk about her. She was an industrial engineer. As soon as the film started, I thought for a second, I said, “Oh, my God, ‘Cheaper by the Dozen.’” I knew the book.
Charlotte Mangin: Exactly. She’s the mother in “Cheaper by the Dozen.”
Jo Reed: What interested me when I watched that was, “Okay. So they’re not picking saints. <laughs> They’re picking complicated people.”
Charlotte Mangin: Yeah. Well, you know, all people are <laughs> complicated. <laughs> Without taking away from her accomplishments, we could not tell her story without acknowledging that she was a proponent of eugenics, which at the time, you know, the white elite, WASPs essentially, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, believed that they were a superior race and needed to, well, in her case, make as many babies as possible <laughs> to promote White Supremacy, and so she’s what historians call positive eugenics, if it’s possible for anything to be positive about eugenics, and then on the other extreme, the more negative eugenics were taking active measures to sterilize people or put them away into institutions if they were the wrong stock, the wrong racial stock or unfit, seemed to be unfit in some way.
Jo Reed: Now, in this point of our conversation, somebody might be wondering, “And why are we highlighting this woman?” Explain why. Why you did.
Charlotte Mangin: Well, because in addition to that, she was the first woman to become a member of the Industrial Engineering Association of America and an incredible inventor of many things we still use today, the foot pedal trash can, shelving in refrigerators, the L-shaped kitchen, which is the layout of many kitchens still today, on top of being the first person to acknowledge that psychology played into the workplace environment and that we had to make the workplace a more human place. As a way to help motivate workers to be more efficient and faster in their tasks, you had to think about their psychology and introduce things like better lighting and ergonomic seating and breaks and feedback mechanisms and meetings with managers, things we still take for granted in the workplace today.
Jo Reed: The 10-minute length, 8 to 10 minutes, for each of the profiles of the women that you highlight, I’m sure there are some-- there were some challenges to that, but I’m sure there were some pluses too. What were they?
Charlotte Mangin: Again, because archive is limited and in some cases the biographical details are as well, these really lent themselves to short stories and initially the concept was to make them closer to five minutes actually. Five to seven seemed to be the attention span that people have for <laughs> digital videos, but then when we really got into it the lives were so rich, we really wanted to give them their voice back, and so we dug deep into diaries and letters and interviews that they did when they were alive and pulled quotes from them that we voice over, and so it just became such a rich story that we realized we need more time to give them their due, <laughs> and in addition, it seemed like there-- most people don’t know much about the context of U.S. history at the time, so we also had to spend some time providing that back story, and then finally, in order, again, to make it feel relevant to an audience today, we decided to interview women in the same professional fields who are essentially walking in the footsteps of these women from the past, so we break off two or three times throughout each film into a modern-day story.
Jo Reed: And I found that fascinating. It provided the viewer with being able to see both how much progress women have made, but boy, how much more there is to go.
Charlotte Mangin: Indeed. For aviators, for instance, if my memory serves me correctly, according to FAA statistics, only six or seven? I can’t remember now.
Jo Reed: Seven. I made a note. <laughs> I did. It’s like seven percent.
Charlotte Mangin: Oh, thank you, yes. Seven percent of aviators today are women. So we’ve gone from zero to seven in the time since Bessie Coleman.
Jo Reed: Mm, think about that. Another person you highlighted was Anna May Wong.
Charlotte Mangin: The first Asian-American movie star.
Jo Reed: Fabulous.
Charlotte Mangin: Isn’t she fabulous?
Jo Reed: Oh, I’ve always been a great Anna May Wong fan, so I was so thrilled to see her being given her due. Explain a little bit about her and why you chose her, though I’m right behind you for that choice. <laughs>
Charlotte Mangin: Yes. No, absolutely. We had a number of Hollywood stars to choose from. One of the ones we considered and then didn’t pursue was a Jewish-American actress named Theda Bara, who is known as the-- essentially the first Hollywood sex symbol. But then Anna May Wong was facing this extra level of racism that is sadly still relevant today, of what’s called yellow face, of white actors playing Asian roles, which, at the time that she broke into Hollywood, was the norm. White actors would not only paint their faces yellow but also tape their eyes to look more Asian, so she was really the first truly Asian, <laughs> you know, person of Asian decent to be on a Hollywood set, and she’s able just with facial expressions to convey so much emotion. She’s really a stunning actress.
Jo Reed: I always loved her voice.
Charlotte Mangin: Yes, she had a very authoritative, deep voice, and she had to learn different accents and different languages, because at one point in her career she was working mainly out of Europe.
<”Unladylike2020” excerpt plays>
Narrator: Hollywood discriminated against Wong again in 1935, when she tried out for the lead role in the biggest film about China to date, an adaptation of Pearl Buck’s novel “The Good Earth.”
Shirley J. Lim: Luise Rainer and Paul Muni, both white actors, ended up as leads, and Wong was asked to try out for the only evil character. She’s like, “No.” <laughs> “I won’t do this.”
Anna May Wong: You are asking me to play the only unsympathetic role in the picture, featuring an all American cast portraying Chinese characters. I had to refuse.
Charlotte Mangin: Again, like Bessie Coleman, who had to go to France to get doors to open for her, Anna May Wong ended up in Europe in Germany, France, England, where she was finding it easier. There was still racism, but less. She found it easier to find work there, or at least more significant parts, because in the U.S., in addition to the racism, there were anti-miscegenation laws in place that wouldn’t allow her to either kiss or marry a white male actor on screen, you know, because races couldn’t mix. So that really limited her ability to be a leading lady in the U.S., and she kept getting passed over and essentially cast into roles as either the Dragon Lady, you know, the evil character, or the Madame Butterfly, the kind of dainty China doll.
Jo Reed: Right. It was a rare movie where she wasn’t dead at the end.
Charlotte Mangin: That too, yes, she-- at one point she says, “Pathetic dying is the best thing I seem to do.”
Jo Reed: Let’s talk about funding. Always a happy subject for documentary filmmakers. How did you cobble together the funds to make this project happen?
Charlotte Mangin: That has been the hardest part of the whole enterprise. It’s taken three years. We actually are still fund-raising for a small gap, but we’ve raised 1.8 million dollars in the past three years, which I’m really proud of, but it has taken innumerable hours of writing grant proposals and talking to program officers at foundations, and basically our strategy initially was to go to state and local funders in all the states that these women hail from, because they are from all over the country. So our early grants were smaller grants, but they were research and development grants from state humanities councils, from I think 11 or 12 different states, which created this incredible momentum and then helped us get a grant from the NEH, the NEA, and eventually when “American Masters” on PBS came on board, I guess a year and a half ago, they wrote us a letter of commitment. That’s when CPB, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, also came in. So it’s a-- government grants have been our largest source of income by far, and then along the way we did several fund-raising events, individual donors, and then some private foundations, like the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, is funding our four episodes about women in STEM. But we’ve found that there’s a number of foundations that give to women-led media projects, but not that many have caught up to the digital series reality. They tend to fund feature-length films about social issues, so this niche of, you know, we’re short, we’re a series, it’s women, mainly history, biography, there weren’t that many places that we fit with in the funding landscape. So we’re so blessed the NEH, the CPB, NEA, all believed in us. <laughs>
Jo Reed: How did you get involved in documentary filmmaking?
Charlotte Mangin: So I came to it pretty late. I discovered documentaries in graduate school. I was getting a master’s in Chinese Studies. I had thought that I would move to China to become a journalist, and then in one of my classes I was shown this series of documentary films about 20th Century Chinese history and just completely fell in love with the medium, realizing that it was a form of journalism, but in some ways much more in-depth and emotional, <laughs> having that extra audiovisual element, and so I basically wrote to all of the companies that had made films about China and said, you know, “I speak Chinese. I love what you do. I want to come work for you,” and one of them happened to have just come back from shooting, I think, 50 hours of interviews in China, and they hired me as a translator to translate these interviews, and next thing I knew, because it was a small production company, I was also doing archival research and helping write grant proposals and watching cuts and giving notes and, you know, so it was basically my mini film school, working for Ambrica Productions, and from there I went to National Geographic in D.C., and worked on “Explorer,” which is still, I think, their longest-running cable documentary show, and started as a story development researcher, you know, coming up with new film ideas and vetting ideas that were being pitched by producers both in-house and out of house, and from there an associate producer where I got to be in the field doing these incredible expeditions in the Himalaya, the Amazon Jungle, really just quintessential National Geographic experiences, and then married a New Yorker and moved up to New York and found a job eventually at Channel 13, WNET, which is the PBS station here in New York.
Jo Reed: The one I grew up on.
Charlotte Mangin: Is it? Oh.
Jo Reed: Yeah, it is. I have such fondness for it. <laughs>
Charlotte Mangin: Me too. So I was there on staff with a series called “Wide Angle.”
Jo Reed: You certainly have had a very robust career, and I wonder if there are themes you find yourself returning to.
Charlotte Mangin: People. <laughs> Human stories. Yeah, I just, I’m fascinated by humanity and telling human stories and what connects us all, and whether it’s through current affairs or history, I think just the resilience of human beings is what is a through line through all the projects I’ve worked on.
Jo Reed: You’ve been a documentary filmmaker for 20 years, so I’m wondering how you’ve seen this business change for women during those two decades.
Charlotte Mangin: Immeasurably. This is the first time that I get a chance to hand pick my team, and it’s very much a women majority team. I think there’s 20 or maybe a little more than that-- 20 to 25 women working on this project currently-- and 3 men. <laughs> Who are great allies. <laughs> But, you know, we’ve gone out of our way to everyone from the researcher to the sound mixer to the, you know, cinematographer and the writers are all women and that’s been extraordinary. I don’t know that I would’ve necessarily had that opportunity 20 years ago. All of the bosses that I’ve worked for everywhere I’ve been have been men, but I’ve also found incredible women mentors along the way, women are-- who are, you know, maybe 15 or so years ahead of me in their careers who have always taken a chance on me and given me new opportunities to grow. So I think documentary is a place that attracts women storytellers, and by and large-- I mean, maybe I’m naïve or I’ve been blessed in my opportunities-- by and large, I think it’s been a very welcoming environment in which to create.
Jo Reed: You’re unveiling these short films a week at a time.
Charlotte Mangin: Yes. So they’re being released every Wednesday on PBS’s website, pbs.org/unladylike2020, as well as on the “American Masters” YouTube page, as well as on our own website, unladylike2020.com, where there’s not only these 26 shorts but also the stories of the 200-plus other women that I researched in the course of creating the project in a sort of searchable database, so you can, depending on what your interests are, you can search for, you know, women in business or women from the South or Asian-American women, and then all these different search results will come up, and then PBS is also creating curriculum for middle and high school classrooms that will be up on PBS LearningMedia, which is their educational platform. It reaches 1.6 million educators around the country, so I’m especially excited that a new generation of kids will be studying these women in class.
Jo Reed: Oh, that’s fabulous.
Charlotte Mangin: Right.
Jo Reed: Are you still working on the series?
Charlotte Mangin: Yes. We... <laughs> We’re delivering them one a week on a rolling basis over the next six months, so some of the episodes are almost done. Others we haven’t even begun to edit and are still conducting interviews and writing scripts for, so they’re in all different phases all at once, and I have to keep juggling all these names and deadlines in my head. It’s exhausting, but really fun.
Jo Reed: Oh, yeah. That cannot be easy. Do you have a sense of what might be coming next for you?
Charlotte Mangin: Yeah, we-- well, we’re also doing this amazing impact campaign with the series, where we’ve created partnerships with local public television stations, women’s halls of fame, public libraries, women’s and girls’ organizations, historical societies and on and on and on, and so I’m going to be spending, really through the end of this year, spending my time traveling the country bringing these films into local communities and really engaging with audiences in person, which is really exciting, so-- and the NEA actually funded part of our impact campaign, so thank you. <laughs>
Jo Reed: You’re very welcome. We like people to have impact. <laughs>
Charlotte Mangin: Yes.
Jo Reed: It’s a great project, Charlotte, and the four I saw has made me hungry for more.
Charlotte Mangin: Oh, I’m so happy to hear that. Thank you. Keep tuning in.
Charlotte Mangin: Thank you. It really feels like my life’s work. It’s been such an amazing opportunity, and I feel these women at my back, you know, pushing me to tell their stories and inspiring me every day. Whenever I have a hard day I think, “Ah, but she climbed the Himalaya in petticoats,” you know. “I got this.”
Jo Reed: That’s a great way to go forward.
Jo Reed: Thank you.
Charlotte Mangin: My pleasure.
Jo Reed: That was Charlotte Mangin. She’s the creator, producer and director of "Unladylike020.” You can go to unladylike2020.com and see the three episodes that have already been posted, and keep tuning in, as Charlotte says. This is a wonderful series, and it’s especially resonant in these troubled moments. And if you have kids, take advantage of it. It is terrific family viewing. Small, digestible episodes, colorful and dynamic, that can open the door to thoughtful conversations. You’ve been listening to “Art Works,” produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Subscribe to “Art Works” wherever you get your podcasts, and then leave us a rating on Apple, because, as you know, it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Be safe, be kind, and thank you for listening.
Unladylike 2020 is the brainchild of documentary filmmaker Charlotte Mangin. It's an innovative multimedia series about little known but extraordinary women at turn of the 20th century whose legacies we all benefit from today. There are 26 ten minute films that combine archival footage, diary entries, animation, and dynamic artwork (funded by the NEA). Narrated by actors Julianna Margulies and Lorraine Toussaint, Unladylike 2020 puts the biographies of women like aviator Bessie Coleman, politician Jeannette Rankin and actor Anna May Wong in their historical and social context. But they also include interviews with contemporary women who are the direct beneficiaries of these trailblazers' legacies. The series began on March 3--with a new episode dropping each week at Unladylike 2020 and PBS American Masters. Both websites are packed with information, so if you're home with the kids visit the websites. These films are perfect for family viewing, and they can open the door to thoughtful conversations. In this podcast, Charlotte Mangin takes us "backstage" and walks us through how Unladylike 2020 came to be. We talk about some of the women she chose, the innovative techniques she used to bring these women to life digitally and the joy of working with a team of women on stories about women.