Commentary — July 18, 2012, 2:14 pm

How Mary Kay Cosmetics Sells Women on “Having It All”

Virginia Sole-Smith is a reporting fellow with the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute. Her article “The Pink Pyramid Scheme: How Mary Kay cosmetics preys on desperate housewives” appears in the August 2012 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

Feminists have long been blamed for making women want to “have it all”: the supportive spouse, the beloved children, the high-powered career. When Anne-Marie Slaughter published her treatise in The Atlantic last month on why even the highest-powered of women don’t yet have all of it, this mindset prevailed again. “I’d been the woman congratulating herself on her unswerving commitment to the feminist cause,” she wrote. “I’d been the one telling young women at my lectures that you can have it all and do it all, regardless of what field you are in. . . . Which means I’d been part, albeit unwittingly, of making millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot).” In fighting for equal pay and seats at the boardroom table, Slaughter seemed to be suggesting, feminists had failed women. We should have been fighting to break down corporate hierarchies and change the relationship between work and family life.

As I recount in “The Pink Pyramid Scheme,” a conservative Christian entrepreneur named Mary Kay Ash claimed to be doing just these things in 1963—long before the power-suited conception of feminism with which Slaughter came of age—by signing up Texas housewives to sell Beauty by Mary Kay using the tagline “Enriching Women’s Lives.” “I wasn’t interested in the dollars-and-cents part of any business,” Ash wrote in her 1995 self-help book, called—of course—You Can Have It All: Lifetime Wisdom from America’s Foremost Woman Entrepreneur. “My interest in 1963 was in offering women opportunities that didn’t exist anywhere else.”

Ash knew from experience that traditional jobs weren’t working for women. As a divorced mother of three, she had built a career in the direct-sales industry, but she’d watched promotions go to male colleagues while she was told to “stop thinking like a woman.” So she wanted her company to be different. From the beginning, Mary Kay ladies could, in theory at least, set their hours around their children’s school days and form business connections among friends and neighbors instead of trying to crack old-boy networks.

To read Ash’s writings on the dilemmas women faced fifty years ago is to realize how little things have changed, despite the fact that far more women now work than stay home.Almost 71 percent of mothers with children under age 18 were working or looking for work last year. But despite her grasp of workplace inequality, Ash was no feminist. Beauty By Mary Kay launched the same year The Feminine Mystique was published, and Ash was the anti-Friedan, reassuring housewives that they could earn pocket money without threatening their breadwinner husbands. “Although my late husband, Mel, was very supportive of my career,” Ash wrote, “he let me know that beginning at seven each evening, I was to be Mrs. Mel Ash—period. Starting then, it was his time.”

In some ways, Ash’s approach to female empowerment was pragmatic. For the most part, the first housewives who signed on as Mary Kay ladies weren’t educated or connected enough to want to storm ivory towers or smash glass ceilings. They were taking crucial first steps toward economic independence: cash to cover the bills their husbands couldn’t pay, a car to drive the kids to soccer practice.

Most of today’s Mary Kay ladies are struggling, though, even as the company flourishes at their expense. Tracy Coenen, a financial-fraud investigator and the founder of the online community Pink Truth, estimates that Mary Kay consultants can hope to clear $25,000 per year, at best. Most who make money earn about minimum wage, while fewer than 300 of the 600,000 Mary Kay ladies in the United States net a six-figure income. The women I interviewed for “The Pink Pyramid Scheme” told me stories about struggling to patch together daycare or to survive high-risk pregnancies while working long hours scouting prospects and hosting parties without any guarantee of a sale. Debts mounted, marriages failed. They couldn’t have it all because Mary Kay’s business model (like that of any multilevel-marketing enterprise) is designed primarily to profit from, rather than enrich, its workforce.

The lesson I took from their experiences was that the question of how to have it all shouldn’t be segregated into a “big girlfriends club” (as one Mary Kay lady described her sales force). When we assume that the needs for flexible work hours and equal pay are just “women’s issues,” we do a disservice to the many men who want to be equal partners in their households, and we enable the dysfunctional pattern in which American women who work full-time nevertheless continue to do most of the housework and childcare.According to a new Bureau of Labor Statistics report, for example, 48 percent of women clean the house or do laundry on an average day, compared with only 19 percent of men. Moreover, we reinforce the idea that this disparity is somehow inherent to gender, which places the onus on women to make changes if it bothers them so damn much.

Fifty years after Ash was trying to figure out how women could earn money while still being good mothers and wives, Slaughter can start the same conversation more openly, but although she calls for systemic change, she still reverts to a “maternal imperative” to explain why women seem to care more about these things than men:

Men are still socialized to believe that their primary family obligation is to be the breadwinner; women, to believe that their primary family obligation is to be the caregiver. But it may be more than that. When I described the choice between my children and my job to Senator Jeanne Shaheen, she said exactly what I felt: “There’s really no choice.” She wasn’t referring to social expectations, but to a maternal imperative felt so deeply that the “choice” is reflexive.

In fact, no one will have it all as long as these kinds of assumptions underlie the conversation, and as long as women remain afraid that finding fulfillment in work means their families won’t feel loved. Mary Kay sold $3 billion worth of lipstick, moisturizer, and “opportunities” to its sales force in 2011 alone by playing on that very fear.

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More from Virginia Sole-Smith:

From the October 2015 issue

Getting Jobbed

The real face of welfare reform

From the August 2012 issue

The pink pyramid scheme

How Mary Kay cosmetics preys on desperate housewives

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  • Robert Spiller

    The truth of the matter is that it really isn’t the MLM industries fault. The fault lies in the simple truth that the vast majority of people, (the 97% failure rate confirms this) are not trained or conditioned to have their own business. They didn’t learn it at home or at school. And even if they did, were they trained to be successful. Were they trained on how to be persistent, keep the right attitude, how to market, sell, and the other qualities that helps one to succeed. No nope nada.

    Some of the upline so-called leaders don’t help, as one of the first things these knuckle heads will say is “now make up a list of 100 people that you know”…the same 100 people who’ve been approached 100 times for an MLM opportunity and the same 100 people who do not have the skill sets to succeed as well.

    People have to learn how to succeed and then they will succeed. It’s not their fault for not achieving their goals. There are sites on the internet where a person can be mentored and trained to succeed in network marketing. MFF is one of them, and if people were to get plugged in, and especially these so-called leaders help their downline, the the success rate will go up tremendously.

    And learning how to get themselves in the right mind set will help as well.
    EFT (which stands for emotional freedom technique) is a proven way to overcome negative beliefs, and condition yourself to become more positive and successful.
    I mean with 100′s of thousands of testimonials, you think that it doesn’t work.

  • Get Your Spotlight

    Seriously, I’ve been working with party plan and direct sales marketing ( and there are several ways to get beyond that “100 people you know” old school tactic. It’s tired and these days there are new and more unique ways to get customers and bookings, but you’ve got to get outside of the (usually) untrained mentor’s ways.

    • justjo

      my 26 year old niece does make close to 6 figures with Mary Kay. She has vacation days, wins trips and jewelry, and encourages the women on her team. She works hard when she wants to, and plays hard when she wants to. It’s all in the mind of person who is selling. Do you want it bad enough? There is money to be made out there. I see it every time I go to her house and ride in the pink caddy. I LOVE MK

      • LDBrown

        I wonder where this person’s niece lives. I live in Philadelphia and work at a law firm. I know at least six women who sell Mary Kay and just as many who sell Avon in my law firm alone. One woman sells both. From what I’ve witnessed the Avon sellers make more than the Mary Kay because there is more variety in makeup, skincare, and other products with Avon. Even the woman who sells both says she makes more with Avon.
        Also it is difficult to sell an expensive brand like Mary Kay when women who want expensive cosmetics would prefer to purchase the same high end brand that they see their favorite celebrity wearing or that celebrity makeup artists are using like MAC, Bobbie Brown, Clinique, or Lancôme. For some reason the women in my firm are really big on MAC.
        I’m African American. Personally, I prefer to use brands owned and developed by people of color.

  • Tanny

    I’ve sold Mary Kay products. Mary Kay’s products ARE very good.
    I couldn’t however sell the products. I like them enough to buy but not to sell. I like them enough to join the company to buy the products at a dicount but just not to sell them .
    I returned the products when I couldn’t sell them.
    Their products are excellent!
    Marykay could help their sales consultants by advertising which they don’t do.

  • black eye

    Mary Kay, a supposed woman’s company who’s slogan deals with “empowering women” is oh so true. Having been a consultant with this company and knowing the women who say that they are there for you are just lying. The women who sponsored me took my husband into her home after he beat me and had a restraining order against him for domestic violence. She also gave him legal advice from her paralegal past. She does not fit the traditional company profile and keeps her same sex marriage a secret. I personally do not care about that issue but I do care that she empowered herself a new kitchen from my physically abusive husband over a woman. Yes she did empower herself at another woman’s expense.



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