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.

Share
Single Page

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

Get access to 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

June 2018

The Last Best Place

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Sound of Madness

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Looking for Calley

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Comforting Myths

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Wizard of Q

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Punching the Clock

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Combat High·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Afew months before the United States invaded Iraq, in 2003, Donald Rumsfeld, the defense secretary at the time, was asked on a radio show how long the war would take. “Five days or five weeks or five months,” he replied. “It certainly isn’t going to last any longer than that.” When George W. Bush departed the White House more than five years later, there were nearly 136,000 US soldiers stationed in the country. 

The number of troops has fallen since then, but Bush’s successors have failed to withdraw the United States from the region. Barack Obama campaigned on ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, only to send hundreds of troops into Syria. For years Donald Trump described America’s efforts in Afghanistan as “a waste” and said that soldiers were being led “to slaughter,” but in 2017 he announced that he would deploy as many as 4,000 more troops to the country. “Decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk of the Oval Office,” he explained. Every president, it seems, eventually learns to embrace our perpetual war.

With the Trump Administration’s attacks on affordable health care, immigration, environmental regulation, and civil rights now in full swing, criticism of America’s military engagements has all but disappeared from the national conversation. Why hasn’t the United States been able—or willing—to end these conflicts? Who has benefited from them? Is victory still possible—and, if so, is it anywhere in sight?

In March, Harper’s Magazine convened a panel of former soldiers at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. The participants, almost all of whom saw combat in Iraq or Afghanistan, were asked to reflect on the country’s involvement in the Middle East. This Forum is based on that panel, which was held before an audience of cadets and officers, and on a private discussion that followed.

Illustration (detail) by John Ritter
Article
Comforting Myths·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Before he died, my father reminded me that when I was four and he asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said I wanted to be a writer. Of course, what I meant by “writer” then was a writer of Superman comics. In part I was infatuated with the practically invulnerable Man of Steel, his blue eyes and his spit curl. I wanted both to be him and to marry him—to be his Robin, so to speak. But more importantly, I wanted to write his story, the adventures of the man who fought for truth, justice, and the American Way—if only I could figure out what the fuck the American Way was.

Artwork by Mahmood Sabzi
Article
The Sound of Madness·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Sarah was four years old when her spirit guide first appeared. One day, she woke up from a nap and saw him there beside her bed. He was short, with longish curly hair, like a cherub made of light. She couldn’t see his feet. They played a board game—she remembers pushing the pieces around—and then he melted away.

After that, he came and went like any child’s imaginary friend. Sarah often sensed his presence when strange things happened—when forces of light and darkness took shape in the air around her or when photographs rippled as though shimmering in the heat. Sometimes Sarah had thoughts in her head that she knew were not her own. She would say things that upset her parents. “Cut it out,” her mother would warn. “This is what they put people in psychiatric hospitals for.”

Painting (detail) by Carlo Zinelli
Article
Looking for Calley·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the fall of 1969, I was a freelance journalist working out of a small, cheap office I had rented on the eighth floor of the National Press Building in downtown Washington. A few doors down was a young Ralph Nader, also a loner, whose exposé of the safety failures in American automobiles had changed the industry. There was nothing in those days quite like a quick lunch at the downstairs coffee shop with Ralph. Once, he grabbed a spoonful of my tuna-fish salad, flattened it out on a plate, and pointed out small pieces of paper and even tinier pieces of mouse shit in it. He was marvelous, if a bit hard to digest.

The tip came on Wednesday, October 22. The caller was Geoffrey Cowan, a young lawyer new to town who had worked on the ­McCarthy campaign and had been writing critically about the Vietnam War for the Village Voice. There was a story he wanted me to know about. The Army, he told me, was in the process of court-martialing a GI at Fort Benning, in Georgia, for the killing of seventy-five civilians in South Vietnam. Cowan did not have to spell out why such a story, if true, was important, but he refused to discuss the source for his information.

Photograph © Bettmann/Getty Images
Article
The Last Best Place·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The family was informed they would be moving to a place called Montana. Jaber Abdullah had never heard of it, but a Google search revealed that it was mountainous. Up to that point, he and his wife, Heba, had thought they’d be moving from Turkey to Newark, New Jersey. The prospect of crime there concerned Heba, as she and Jaber had two young sons: Jan, a petulant two-year-old, and Ivan, a newborn. 

Montana sounded like the countryside. That, Heba thought, could be good. She’d grown up in Damascus, Syria, where jasmine hung from the walls and people sold dates in the great markets. These days, you checked the sky for mortar rounds like you checked for rain, but she still had little desire to move to the United States. Basel, Jaber’s brother, a twenty-two-year-old with a cool, quiet demeanor, merely shrugged.

Illustration (detail) by Danijel Žeželj

Average amount Microsoft spends each month assisting people who need to change their passwords:

$2,000,000

Chimpanzees who join new groups with inferior nut-cracking techniques will abandon their superior techniques in order to fit in.

Trump leaves the Iran nuclear deal, Ebola breaks out in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and scientists claim that Pluto is still a planet.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

Subscribe Today