Willa Beatrice Brown of Glasgow was a pioneering black woman aviator in the 1930s. She and her husband operated a flight school that trained 200 black pilots during World War II for the famed Tuskegee Airmen unit. She is featured in the film “Dreamers & Doers: VOICES of Kentucky Women.” Photo provided
When women demanded the right to vote a century ago, men scoffed.
“Masculine females, members of the shrieking sisterhood,” Henry Watterson, editor of The Courier-Journal in Louisville, called the suffragettes. “I doubt nine of 10 women would know what to do with the ballot if they had it. Politics will only pollute their domestic interests and coarsen their feminine character.”
Such comments did not deter several Kentucky women who would gain national prominence as progressive reformers, including Josephine Henry, sisters Laura and Mary B. Clay and Madeline McDowell Breckinridge, whose husband edited the Lexington Herald.
“Kentucky women are not idiots,” Breckinridge wrote to Gov. James McCreary in 1915, “even though they are closely related to Kentucky men.”
The documentary by Lexington filmmaker Michael Breeding will have its first premiere on Tuesday in Frankfort, followed by three more across the state, including Lexington, and will eventually be shown on KET. DVDs of the film will be sent to every state middle and high school.
“We came to the conclusion that the role of women in Kentucky had never been recorded and disseminated as widely as it should be,” said Linda Roach, a commission member. “We want people to see this and say, ‘I never knew about that woman! Look what she did!'”
Trying to do justice to Kentucky’s long list of outstanding women in an hour-long film was a challenge for Breeding, an independent filmmaker who has a dozen shows in the KET catalog, including last year’s, Kentucky Governor’s Mansion: A Century of Reflection.
Breeding started with 69 names from Kentucky Women Remembered, an exhibit at the State Capitol. In the final selection, he looked for racial and geographic diversity and pioneering women who made contributions in a variety of areas, including politics, education, medicine, the arts, athletics and entertainment.
Martha Layne Collins, who in 1983 became Kentucky’s first and only woman governor, helps connect these women’s stories as the film’s narrator. Lt. Gov. Crit Luallen and several other women add commentary.
First lady Jane Beshear and Madeline Abramson, wife of former Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson, were instrumental in creating the film, as was Eleanor Jordan, the commission’s executive director, Breeding said.
Major funding for the film came from Toyota, The Gheens Foundation, Frontier Nursing University, the Kentucky Arts Council and the commission’s foundation.
Some women featured in the film are familiar figures: politicians Thelma Stovall, Georgia Davis Powers and Mae Street Kidd; singers Rosemary Clooney, Loretta Lynn and Jean Ritchie; and Frontier Nursing Service founder Mary Breckinridge.
But what makes the film fresh are the stories of many lesser-known but no-less fascinating Kentucky women.
What Mary Breckinridge was to poor mountain children in Eastern Kentucky, Dr. Grace James (1923-1989) was to poor inner-city children in Louisville.
The pediatrician, who began a practice in 1953 when city hospitals were segregated by law, also was the first black faculty member of the University of Louisville’s medical school.
Nettie Depp was the first woman elected to public office in Barren County. She was county school superintendent from 1913-1917, and she took the job very seriously.
She repaired dilapidated rural schools, built new ones and added libraries. She initiated a uniform curriculum, created the county’s first four-year high school and fined parents who refused to send their children to school. During her tenure, county school attendance tripled.
Depp was the great-great aunt of actor Johnny Depp and Lexington sculptor Amanda Matthews, who is working on a statue of Nettie Depp she hopes to have placed in the State Capitol.
Rose Monroe, a Pulaski County native, became a feminist symbol during World War II when she worked at a Michigan factory building B-24 bombers. She was the model for the “Rosie the Riveter” image on the iconic “We Can Do It!” poster.
An even bigger contributor to the war effort was Willa Beatrice Brown of Glasgow, a pioneering black female pilot, aircraft mechanic and flight instructor. She earned business degrees from Indiana and Northwestern universities, but continued her education at Chicago’s Aeronautical University, earning commercial pilot’s and master aviation mechanic’s licenses.
Brown and her husband, Cornelius, operated a flight school in the 1930s that trained nearly 200 pilots who became part of the famous Tuskegee Airmen unit during World War II.
“These women … opened doors that other women walk through,” Roach said. “It’s important for girls today to look at these women and say, ‘If she could do it, why not me?'”
To learn more
For information about the documentary’s showings, including one in Lexington scheduled for April 9 at the Kentucky Theatre, go to https://secure.kentucky.gov/formservices/Women/Voices/