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PBS docuseries honors ‘unladylike’ sheroes who have been agents of change

Charlotte Spears Bass Artwork by Amelie Chabannes, courtesy of UNLADYLIKE2020

From the infamous quote, “Well behaved women seldom make history,” by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, comes PBS’ female empowered art-infused history docuseries, “Unladylike 2020.”  The series has received critical acclaim after launching in March 2020 during Women’s History Month. The 26 episode series will wrap on Wednesday, Aug. 26, with a perfectly-timed finale highlighting Charlotta Spears Bass (1874-1969), the first African American woman to own and operate a newspaper in the United States. Bass was also the first African American woman to run for vice president of the United States in 1952.

Rolling out had the opportunity to speak with Sandy Rattley, one of the executive producers of the series, about why she believes the content is more relevant now than ever before.

The title “Unladylike” suggests being ladylike is turning a blind eye and not causing disruption. Do you believe this idea is changing?

I think the quote by Louis Bryant in 1919 speaks volumes and is a great reference point. She said, “I do not want to be treated like a lady, I want to be treated like a human being.” We are living in a time when Black women are constantly being attacked. This is still this trope, this Amos and Andy idea type that Black women are loud and always starting trouble.  I hope African American women will watch this series and realize their history is full of women living powerful phrases such as “Black Lives Matter.”

There are examples of women mobilizing the economy, breaking gender stereotypes and so much more. How did you select these unique and untold stories?

There are so many great stories and even more to tell. We have Maggie Lena Walker, the first African American bank president who not only founded a bank in 1903 but also created credit lines to finance over 600 home loans for African Americans in 1920. Then there is Gladys Bentley, a performer in 1907 who incorporated cross-dressing in her act and would host huge shows with co-stars in drag. She pushed boundaries by openly flirting with women during her shows and was known for having very provocative lyrics. All these things we see impacting our stories today have always been a part of who we are.

If you had to select three women from today to be a part of a contemporary series, who would you choose and why?

Lizzo, because she is exceptional in multiple categories and has caused a re-examination of what beauty means. Demetria Lucas, because she sets a lot of women free and makes a space for us to breathe, be lusty and transparent. Nicole Hannah Jones because as a stellar journalist, she is fearless, consistent, and mobilizes educators with an undaunting voice.

I have a lot of hope, faith and optimism for the future. We are the engine for change.

There is a FREE curriculum based on all 26 women highlighted in UNLADYLIKE available for educators, etc. The Unladylike 2020 collection of lesson plans are available here: https://pbslearningmedia.org/collection/unladylike2020/