Sunday, March 1, 2009

My feminist heros Part 1: Mary Kay Ash

I've been a Mary Kay Independent Beauty Consultant for nearly two years now, and while I'm getting into doing it full-time, I'm going back and reading her autobiography, Miracles Happen. As I've been reading, (actually re-reading), I've been noticing a few things standing out a little more. I hadn't yet come into my feminism fully when I first read Miracles Happen, so there were a few things the great importance of which I missed the first time around.
For instance:
"One company paid me $25,000 a year to be its national training director, but, in truth, I was acting as the national sales manager - and for a salary much less than the job was worth. Then there were times when I would be asked to take a man out on the road to train him, and after six months be brought back to Dallas, made my superior, and given twice my salary! It happened more than once. What really angered me was when I was told that these men earned more because they had families to support. I had a family to support too. In those days, it seemed that women's brains were worth only fifty cents on the dollar in a male-run corporation. Even more insulting was the way a woman's ideas were rarely respected. I became enraged every time I presented a good marketing plan and was dismissed with "Mary Kay, you're thinking just like a woman." I knew that in my company "thinking like a woman was going to be an asset, not a liability!"
(Italics in the original, bolded text mine)
It's statements like those bolded in the paragraph above that make me wonder why Mary Kay Ash has been over looked for 50 years by feminists. Looking at her words now, when contemporary feminist writers don't hesitate to let their words reflect their rage, Mary Kay's words are pretty tame. But when you think about the world in which she grew up, that she would acknowledge her rage and then go on to do something to change the world she lived in so dramatically, it's hard not to see her as a feminist icon. Even if she did change her world with what some might dub as "proping up the patriarchy" -- because after all, Mary Kay's empire was founded on a tool used by the patriarchy to make women feel bad about their bodies -- right? I mean, that's all she did, right? Make up?
Wrong. The company is called Mary Kay Cosmetics, but it's not really about make up. It's about skin care. And the way Mary Kay taught us was that we need to teach other women about skin care. Maybe the reasons skin care is so important is so that we can be physically attractive in our faces, but the motto of the company isn't Enriching Women's Lives for no reason. Mary Kay Ash wanted women to learn about their skin, to feel good about themselves, to be confident in their abilities, to be able to run their own businesses, and to gain financial independence in a world that pretty much ignored a woman's need and ability to provide for herself.
If that's not feminism, then apparently, I'm in the wrong club.
Mary Kay Ash took something that pissed her off and actually created change in the world. Today there are more than 1.5 million active Independent Beauty Consultants, like myself, in more than 30 markets worldwide. South East Asia, Eastern Europe, Iran -- places where women are even less respected than they are in the West, places where it's incredibly difficult for a woman to survive without the support and approval of a man. How is that not feminism?
I'm not saying that skin care is a feminist act. I'm not saying that make up is a feminist act. What I'm saying here, ladies and possibly gentlemen, is that Mary Kay Ash was completely forgotten by the feminist community, and I think that's something that needs to change. Maybe she didn't do a whole lot of feminist writing (that is, writing couched in popular feminist terms), but she did do and say a lot that lead to the actual empowerment of millions of women. Her work is as important to feminism as the work of any other woman (or man, for that matter) who created change for women and for society in the last -- however long its been.
I love Mary Kay. I love Mary Kay products. I love teaching other women about skin care and letting them choose the things they want to learn about (surprise, I don't sell make up to everyone who comes to a skin care class, because not every woman likes make up -- although I do hear "I don't really wear make up" as a reason not to host a class quite often and I smile and say "that's okay, the first class is about skin care anyway -- you do have skin right?" I joke). I love that Mary Kay Ash saw a world that ignored women's abilities and decided to act to capitalize on the abilities of women. She wanted to create a world that had
"instead of a tightly closed corporate door bearing the sign "For Men Only", our company has an open portal that bears the invitation "Everyone Welcome - Especially Women."
And that's the world that she worked to create. That's the world that Mary Kay Cosmetics still works to create. That's why I'm proud to call myself a Mary Kay Independent Beauty Consultant. And I would love to share it with you!

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