New film tells the stories of groundbreaking Kentucky women

March 7, 2015

150308KyWomen0002Willa 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.”

These four women’s stories are among 40 featured in a new film, Dreamers & Doers: VOICES of Kentucky Women, sponsored by the Kentucky Commission on Women.

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.

Madeline McDowell Breckinridge

Madeline McDowell Breckinridge

“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

150308KyWomen0001Martha Layne Collins, the only woman to serve as Kentucky’s governor, narrates the film “Dreamers & Doers: VOICES of Kentucky Women”, which has its first premiere on March 10. Photo provided


New film profiles the Hubbards, who lived life on their own terms

November 18, 2012


It is a common fantasy: Quit the rat race. Get back to nature. Embrace adventure.

Few people ever do it, at least not for long. Even Henry David Thoreau, the 19th-century writer and icon for this fantasy, moved back to civilization after a couple of years on Walden Pond.

But Kentuckians Anna and Harlan Hubbard did it for more than four decades, until their deaths in 1986 and 1988. They floated down rivers on a shantyboat, then lived in a riverbank cabin, both built with their own hands.

The newest telling of the Hubbards’ story is a charming documentary,Wonder: The Lives of Anna & Harlan Hubbard, by Louisville filmmaker Morgan Atkinson. The film ( premiered last week in Louisville. Atkinson is looking for a non-profit group to sponsor a Lexington showing, and he hopes to have the film shown on KET.

Atkinson’s previous work has includeed documentaries about other American originals: Thomas Merton, the Nelson County monk and writer; and John Howard Griffin, a white man who turned his skin dark and traveled the Deep South in 1959 to write the best-selling book, Black Like Me.

Atkinson never met the Hubbards, but he read about them. “One night, I had this very vivid dream about Harlan Hubbard,” he said. “I woke up thinking, that’s odd.”

He started reading more, and, before he knew it, he was making this film.

It tells the Hubbards’ story through old photos and film, re-enacted scenes and narration by actor Will Oldham, who reads from Harlan’s journals, and writer Wendell Berry, who reads from his 1989 book, Harlan Hubbard: Life and Work.

“They were enormously gifted people,” Berry said in an interview. “What made them unique was they were determined to live according to the requirements of their gifts, and that’s what they did.”

Harlan, who was born in 1900, grew up in Northern Kentucky and New York City.

He liked to paint, write, play music and explore nature. He earned money as a day laborer, having little interest in the modern world or its definitions of success.

He met Anna Eikenhout, two years his junior, at the Cincinnati Public Library, where she was a librarian. After several years, they began a courtship by playing music together — he the violin and viola, she the cello and piano. They married in 1944 and chose adventure over conformity.

They lived in a shack on the Ohio riverbank while Hubbard built a shantyboat. They lived on that boat for nearly eight years, five of which they spent drifting down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, fishing, hunting and stopping for months at a time to grow vegetables.

When they ran out of river in Louisiana, they headed back to Kentucky and settled at Payne Hollow in Trimble County, which had been the first long stop on their river odyssey. Harlan bought seven acres, built a cabin and planted a garden. Anna cooked, kept house and had family in Michigan send down her Steinway grand piano.

The Hubbards read to each other after meals — in French and German, as well as English. In the evenings, they played music together. Harlan had studied art in New York and Cincinnati, and he earned what little money they needed by selling his prolific output of paintings and drawings of scenes along the river.

“It’s hard to tell how long work by Harlan will be turning up, because he gave away pictures and traded them for sacks of corn or sold them for $5,” said Berry, who has used Harlan’s paintings on the covers of several of his books.

Harlan wrote three books about their life and adventures, and they attracted a steady stream of visitors to the cabin. Among them was Berry, who said he happened upon it by accident in 1963 while canoeing with a friend. Over the years, Berry and the Hubbards became close friends.

Other visitors included Louisville’s Bingham family, wealthy former owners of The Courier-Journal. Eleanor Bingham Miller, who as a child visited the Hubbards on family boat outings, was a major funder of the documentary, along with the Rivers Institute at Hanover College, across the river from Payne Hollow in Indiana.

“I think a lot of people subscribe to the Hubbards’ values,” Berry said. “There are some very serious flaws in modern life and the life of the industrial world. I think people were attracted by that. They were attracted by curiosity, too.”

Few people really would or even could live as the Hubbards did. But Atkinson thinks there is a lot to learn from them, and he tried to bring out those lessons in his film.

“I would hope that people would be inspired to be open to adventure in their own lives, whatever that may be,” he said. “To be aware of the wonder of the natural world. And just appreciate what a person or a couple can do. It’s being unafraid of what convention might make of what you’re doing.”

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