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.
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.
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.