Ruth Mosko Handler may have been — both literally and figuratively — the mother of Barbie and Ken, but her success was strictly business. As a corporate force to be reckoned with (founder of Mattel), she brought “Barbie” and “Ken” to the forefront of the international toy industry. As mother of Barbara and Ken Handler, she wasn’t the woman most likely to be named “mother of the year.”
Barbie and Ruth is a biography of Ruth Handler and, just as the woman herself did, it emphasizes Handler’s business and executive talents. Ruth was not a happy homemaker—nothing could have made her unhappier. She was most at home when she was working, and she was a workaholic. She couldn’t cook and wasn’t a housekeeper; there were people she could hire to do those chores, as well as take care of the children. What Ruth could do, and do very well, was sell and promote.
Long before Mattel, Ruth Handler was merchandising designs her talented but somewhat socially inept husband Elliot produced. From all accounts, she was a dynamo. And that was at a time in our history when women were not accepted as executives; it was hardly considered.
Barbie and Ruth takes us through Ruth’s life as a Jewish girl living in Denver, Colorado, the tenth of ten children. We see her drive to succeed and we learn that, if nothing else, she was a worker. Ruth Mosko thrived on work; as a teenager she went to school and had as many as three jobs at a time. She planned on becoming a lawyer but that plan was derailed by Elliot Handler; theirs was an instant connection that lasted a lifetime.
In their early career — make no mistake, Ruth and Elliot were a team — they formed several small companies, all of which were successful though often on the brink of failure. They were lucky enough to have friends and family who would infuse much needed cash at crucial times. Both Ruth and Elliot were ingenious enough to work out solutions to problem that might have broken other small companies. The day after they received a huge order, the materials were no longer available due to the war. They suggested other materials and the customer doubled the order.
The Handlers went through several business partners before forming Mattel, which was partially financed by a partner who put up $10,000. When it became too much for him, the Handlers bought him out for $15,000. Ruth was shrewd. She was also loyal to those who stood by her and her family, but harsh to those who criticized them. Throughout Barbie and Ruth, author Robin Gerber reveals Ruth Handler to be a woman of many qualities, not all of them good. However, she was a pioneer in television advertising and market analysis.
When Ruth first proposed a “teenage fashion model” doll, no one supported her. Nearly everyone in the toy industry was male, and men didn’t believe that mothers would buy dolls with breasts for their daughters. Ruth had been inspired by her daughter Barbara who, with friends, would play with adult paper dolls. Knowing that little girls wanted to be big girls, Ruth felt that an “adult” doll was also what they wanted. She was astute enough to see that big money could be made in accessories—Barbie’s outfits, which could be bought separately.
Bringing Barbie to market was no easy feat. Ruth fought for her idea, but when Barbie was introduced, she was greeted with disinterest. Barbie may have had a slow start, but she quickly became the most popular toy in America. Ruth faced other challenges; one was being a woman. She would be invited to be guest speaker at some facility, only to be forced to sneak in a back way because women were not allowed. She was the only woman in her industry, and she was treated as an anomaly or fluke.
Things began to change at Mattel because it had become so successful and big. By the seventies, it became a different company, a mega-corporation. The Handlers' dreams for Mattel had not changed, although the economy did with a major downturn. Shifts in management, creative bookkeeping, and internal politics resulted in their shrinking roles in the company they founded, and finally SEC charges against Ruth, whom the government sorely wanted to serve time. Gerber details the problems that culminated in the SEC investigation without getting bogged down in minutiae, and gives us a look into what Ruth suffered during the investigation and subsequent trial.
The SEC was not Ruth’s only adversary. When Mattel’s troubles began, Ruth was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent a radical mastectomy. Attitudes toward breast cancer victims and the surgery itself changed Ruth, robbing her of her vitality. Once she and Elliot were no longer involved with their beloved toy business, Elliot happily retired to a life of painting, while Ruth began another venture. Her experiences with prosthetics were so demoralizing that she knew the market could only be improved. She developed a prosthetic breast for mastectomy patients, Nearly Me, then went about the difficult task of starting up a new manufacturing company and marketing her product. She did all of this while enduring great pain resulting from her surgery and spending inordinate time with the attorneys who were working on her SEC case.
As in most families, tragedy visited the Handlers in various forms. Ruth greeted it with the same fierce determination she channeled for business challenges; she just had to go on. Barbie and Ruth chronicles the life of Ruth Handler from birth to death, introducing us to a remarkable woman who brought revolutionary change to the toy industry, joy and dignity to cancer victims, and happiness to children, while forcing open doors of opportunity for women. Handler did not surmount barriers, she battered them down. She was loved, hated, tolerated, and emulated.
Ruth Handler was an extraordinary human being who gave the world something more than a doll with breasts. She gave us permission to make our dreams come true.
Bottom Line: Would I buy Barbie and Ruth? You bet, it’s fascinating from start to finish.