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The Secret History of Barbie

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Business Insights for Women
PNC INSIGHTS Magazine Spring/Summer 2014 Issue
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Meet the woman who created the world's most famous doll and grew Mattel from the ground up.

In the late 1950s, Ruth Handler noticed that her pre-teen daughter, Barbara, had left behind her baby dolls in favor of adult paper dolls. Many parents would have left the observation unremarked. But Ruth and her husband, Elliot, owned a fledgling toy company called Mattel, so instead, a cultural icon was born.

So begins one of the great entrepreneurial stories of the last century, documented in Robin Gerber's new book, Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World's Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her. When Barbie made her debut at the New York Toy Fair on March 9, 1959, she was an instant hit. And her success transformed Mattel into a toy-making Juggernaut that was pulling in $300 million in revenue by the 1970s.

A pioneering entrepreneur at a time when women were expected to sacrifice career for marriage, Handler drew criticism from women's organizations that decried the lessons about body image that the improbably proportioned doll taught young girls. Handler disagreed. "Every little girl needed a doll through which to project herself into her dream of her future," she told The New York Times in 1977. "If she was going to do role-playing of what she would be like when she was 16 or 17, it was a little stupid to play with a doll that had a flat chest. So I gave it beautiful breasts."

That wasn't the only disturbance in Handler's career. After rising to CEO of Mattel, she and Elliot resigned from the company in 1975 in the wake of an accounting scandal that later saw her convicted of mail fraud and false reporting to the SEC. By then, Handler had already embarked on a new enterprise. After undergoing a modified radical mastectomy in 1970, she couldn't find a suitable breast prosthesis - so she decided to make her own. Her new company, Ruthton Corp., manufactured a more realistic version of a woman's breast, called "Nearly Me," that is still produced today.

Handler died in 2002 at the age of 85, but her legacy lives on. Last year, perpetually 20-something Barbie turned 50.