YWCA connected with Charlotte Mangin, Founder of UNLADYLIKE2020, a docuseries celebrating the unsung women who made history and changed America forever at the turn of the 20th century, for an interview on what inspired this intersectional and history-making docuseries.
Please note, this interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What inspired you to create UNLADYLIKE2020? When did you first know you wanted this to be more than just an idea in your mind?
CM: Several years ago, I took my children to the Intrepid Museum and happened to be there on a day that a children’s book author was doing a reading on the life of dare-devil Pilot Elinor Smith (the youngest pilot in the world in the 1920s.) I was stunned that I hadn’t heard of her, so I was inspired to research other women who were overlooked in U.S. history.
Through this research, I uncovered a treasure trove of amazing stories of women who defied the social norms and expectations for a “lady” 100+ years ago. I knew I could use my passion for visual storytelling to represent these incredible women. Additionally, I realized that the centennial of women’s suffrage was coming up in 2020. I wanted to time the release of UNLADYLIKE2020 to coincide with this milestone and shift the narrative to introduce new role models, including the many women of color who were the first in certain male-dominated professional fields of their time. This piece about representation is central to our mission: we wanted the project to highlight not only how far we’ve come as a society in the past century, but also what remains to be done to reach gender parity.
Early on we decided that featuring modern-day women walking in the professional footsteps of these historical figures would bring the project full circle. For our episode about aviator Bessie Coleman, the first African American woman pilot, we interviewed Merryl Tengesdal, a colonel in the U.S. Air Force who is the first and still only black woman to fly the U2 plane; for our episode about mountaineer Annie Peck Smith, who was the first person to climb the highest mountain in Peru, we interviewed Vanessa O’Brien—a modern mountaineer who has climbed all over the world and holds a Guinness World Record for summiting the 7 summits on every continent in the least amount of time
Three years ago, I quit my job to solely focus on developing and producing UNLADYLIKE2020. It was a long road with years of fundraising, and fortunately, we developed a partnership with American Masters. Public media is unique – few media partners would let a filmmaker create this project with such artistic freedom and intellectual rigor. What we’ve developed is 26 short 10-minute films coming out weekly every Wednesday on pbs.org and on the American Masters YouTube channel as well as on our own website http://www.UNLADYLIKE2020.com/.
We’ve also created a curriculum to go along with each video, which is being posted on PBS LearningMedia, an education platform which reaches 1.6 million educators around the country (no better time than now during this homeschooling era!)
How did you decide who you would highlight? What women came to mind first?
CM: At the start of the project, we (my team) put together a humanities advisory board comprised of scholars of the Progressive Era (1890s-1920s) and women and gender studies experts who mirror the diversity of the women we are featuring. We shared our research into over 250 women from the turn of the 20th century and they helped us narrow it down to the core 26 that we feature. We chose this era because of the backdrop of the women’s suffrage movement, and a time when the number of women in the U.S. workforce nearly doubles. The period was one of many firsts and women were constantly breaking barriers. The YWCA at that time in fact was key as a national organization helping women organize and find support if they wanted lives beyond the domestic expectations of being a wife and a mother.
The biggest criteria for selecting the 26 core women: is there enough visual archival material to tell her story? Without enough images, it would be impossible to tell the stories in this visual medium (documentary). Further, was there enough context and biographical details known about her life to tell a compelling story? We also wanted to give these women back their voice and needed the ability to find their own voice through diaries, speeches, interviews, letters, memoirs.
We prioritized a matrix of diversity and chose 26 women 26 weeks between March 1st (women’s history month) and August 26th, the actual centennial of the 19th amendment being entered into the U.S. Constitution (26 shorts). We discovered so many untold stories, and we’re currently building the website at www.UNLADYLIKE2020.com. It should be up by the fall, and will be searchable where you can “pick your own adventure” depending on what you’re interested in!
What is your favorite short? Or what was your favorite part about this project?
CM: In terms of her resilience and brilliance, Zitkala-Sa, who was a Yankton Sioux from South Dakota, who was one of the tens of thousands of Native American children who were taken from their homes and sent to a boarding school to be “Americanized” – following the motto at the time, “kill the Indian to save the man.” Zitkala used her English fluency and ability to navigate white circles to write about the trauma of this experience for major U.S. publications such as Harper’s and The Atlantic.
She was also one of the first people to use her boarding school experience to “give it to the man.” She was also a talented musician who later in life performed at the White House and wrote the Sun Dance Opera (considered the first Native American Opera), at a time when the Sundance opera as a religious ritual among tribes of the Great Plains was banned by the U.S. government.
Later in her career, she moved to D.C. to be a lobbyist to work on behalf of Native American rights and was key to pushing through the Native American citizenship act of 1924.
Additionally, I am so inspired by Mountaineer Annie Smith Peck. She discovered mountain climbing later in life and was one of the first women to climb the Matterhorn, which created a scandal because she did it in pants rather than a hoop skirt! She went on to climb many other mountains including being the first person to summit Mt. Huaskaran in Peru (the first! woo!) – she accomplished this after 6 tries at age 68. When she reached the top, she planted a “Votes for Women” banner at the summit!
What is the goal for UNLADYLIKE2020? What emotion are you hoping to provoke? What are you hoping will resonate with girls and women?
CM: Inspiration and shifting the historical narrative to recognize the accomplishments of women and women of color in shaping U.S. society. We were cognizant of the speed of editing at a fast-paced hip way as part of our goal to target an intergenerational audience and appeal to youth who have a tendency to think that black and white history is boring. Because archive is limited, we worked with an artist to create gorgeous animated images to bring the black and white imagery to life and fill in the visual gaps. I hope to motivate women and girls, men and boys to be as “unladylike” as you want to be – by being bold and going against the grain.
What does a world where girls and women are equal, powerful, and unstoppable look like to you?
CM: Pockets of this exist already, but we need to aim for a world in which women and men are 50/50, and women are able to be anything they want to be. I imagine a world where girls don’t even have to question themselves – a world in which girls have unlimited possibilities and the ability to live out their potentials without question. I’m inspired by my very young boys (4 and 7 at the time) asking the question “are girls allowed to be race car drivers?” And I thought to myself, where did that come from? certainly not in my feminist household! I realized that they had already picked up something from society that told them girls “can’t do” or “aren’t allowed” to do everything boys can. I hope to change this.
I’m committed to living life without apologies, and it’s been a 40-year-long journey, but this project is a big part of that emancipation process. For the first time in my career I’ve hand-picked who I am privileged enough to work with. Out of 25 people on our team, 3 are men and all the rest are women.
I hope to continue to develop visual and intersectional stories for the world.