How Mary Kay contributed to feminism – even though she loathed feminists

In 1963, the same year American businesswoman Mary Kay Ash started her cosmetics company, publisher W.W. Norton released “The Feminine Mystique – the book that has since been widely credited with launching the contemporary women’s liberation movement.

Ash loathed the term "feminist” and disliked the movement. In a 1983 Dallas Morning News interview, she dismissed “that foolishness feminists started in the ‘60s” of “trying to act just like a man” by cutting their hair short or lowering their voices.

Yet Ash, who died in 2001, successfully defied her era’s female gender norms. She turned a few thousand dollars into a multibillion-dollar cosmetics empire and led it for decades. Her sales force grew from fewer than 10 women to tens of thousands.

While researching a book on Ash’s life and work, I’ve learned that many of the Mary Kay saleswomen were comfortable with their era’s vision of femininity and motherhood. Ash’s company motto of “God First, Family Second, Career Third” put them at ease.

American women today owe gratitude to the women’s movement of the 1960s for making issues like equal pay for equal work and sharing household responsibilities part of the national conversation – but also to a Dallas entrepreneur who reveled in the feminine mystique.

From underpaid saleswoman to CEO

In 1963, the year Ash founded “Beauty by Mary Kay” in a small Dallas storefront, barely a third of American women were in the workforce. Ash was one of them. She had peddled children’s encyclopedias door to door, and conducted “house parties” - home demonstrations of products that catered to housewives – with Stanley Home Goods and other companies.

Ash consistently earned lower wages than her male counterparts, who also passed her by for promotions. When she protested, one common response was to deride her for “thinking like a woman.” Another was that men needed more money because they had families to support.

“I had a family to support too!” recalled Ash, a single mother, in her 1981 memoir. So she quit to build a company where there would be no wage gap or male bosses, and women would be rewarded for thinking like women – all while embracing the vision of traditional gender roles that the feminist movement was trying to overturn.

By 1969, the company was earning US$6.3 million in net sales, according to The New York Times. And an article in the Irving Daily News, a Texas newspaper, put the sales force at around 4,000 women from 15 different states.

In 1976, Mary Kay Inc. became the first woman-founded and -led company listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

In 1979, glowing coverage on “60 Minutes” prompted nearly 100,000 more women to sign up. The company was grossing over $100 million annually and had a global reach, and Ash was named one of the year’s top corporate women in America by Business Week magazine.