Ding Dong! Call from Avon! by Katina Manko – a new look at the cosmetics industry | Economy

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AAt first glance, some readers may expect Ding Dong! Call from Avon! to be a foamy history of cosmetics. Others might assume the book will be one of the long list of accusatory treatises on capitalism and the power of beauty advertising to enslave women. Fortunately, Katina Manko’s painstakingly researched and expertly written book on Avon products presents a fresh take on the beauty and fashion industry, which breaks with and demystifies the clichés of the past.

Manko focuses his story on the sales agents who rang the doorbell. Throughout, she takes seriously the idea that at least some “Avon Ladies” were striving to do something that, until very recently, was rare in American life: start and grow a business owned by a company. wife. Rather than seeing them as stupid housewives or corporate dupes, she treats the entrepreneurial ambitions of these agents with respect, dispassionately analyzing their accomplishments and failures.

Importantly, although Manko repeatedly emphasizes the white, middle-class nature of Avon’s distribution system and consumer base, his analysis documents the barriers to economic engagement that Avon representatives faced. as women.

At the turn of the 20th century, for example, Avon employed an all-female cadre of roving recruiters. For the most part single – often widowed or divorced – these women continually encountered resistance from the husbands of potential recruits, who had the power to deny their wives permission to sign a contract, as well as withholding the $ 5 fee. . In a letter published in 1926 as “The Adamant Husband”, a recruiter wrote: “Today I had two promising workers all ready and eager to work when Mr. Husband cut me off. He has the advantage there because he provided the $ 5 and likes to show his authority. But eventually found one whose husband agrees to help. ‘May his tribe grow.’

Photograph: Retro AdArchives / Alamy

As is still the case in many countries today, in the early 1900s, women in the United States lost all economic autonomy under the law, including their own identity, when they married. . Even after laws loosened in most states, women were prevented from participating in the economy by widespread staffing practices that forced them to quit their jobs as soon as they became wives. These so-called “marriage bars” have been rationalized by the belief that a wife’s service to her husband should take priority over all other aspects of her life. In the mid-1960s, such practices were declared illegal. Yet informal expectations perpetuated women’s dependence.

Even in the 1980s, an African American woman awarded with Avon for developing a business providing 24 hour child care to minorities and people with disabilities said: “As a female entrepreneur, I am challenged. by the reality of the men’s world and by the task of being the boss in the office and my husband’s wife at home. It wasn’t until 1982 that the Supreme Court overturned the state’s last law that gave a man the right to have full control over household income and assets, including those earned, inherited, or purchased by his wife. .

In a country where married women often could not take formal employment even when their husbands do approve, the sales agent arrangement offered by Avon gave them an alternative route to economic viability. Gloria Steinem said in a recent interview: “One of the most important things I learned about money is that I can support myself and buy freedom, despite all the instructions given to my generation of women. to marry a good supplier. “

Steinem’s own cohort was, in fact, the generation most associated with the famous “Ding Dong!” Avon is calling! slogan; that is to say the women of Feminine Mystic period from which emerged the second wave of feminism of the 1970s. However, although Manko frequently notes the disproportionate place married women have played in Avon’s operations and culture, she does not question this factor. crucial motivation – the desire to avoid being forced into marriage just to survive.

However, she analyzes a cultural expectation that is as ingrained in some feminist thinking today as it was in the popular mind of the early 1900s. The belief that women should earn money only for humanitarian causes and not for their own personal gain was a taboo well recognized by Avon recruiters. themselves.

The fair treatment of Avon in this book is commendable. Manko credits the former California Perfume Company with credit for breaking away from the prescribed economic role imposed on women in 19th and 20th century America, but also reveals how the company’s rhetoric has coated what was in reality a rather radical economic proposition enveloping it in ideals of domesticity and respectability. She blames Avon for his inability to include women in the leadership ranks; but gives the company credit for its generous support of breast cancer research, as well as its commitment to ending domestic violence.

Few historians have been as fair to businesses as Manko is to Avon, and even fewer have been as knowledgeable about the strategies available to businesses or the parameters within which they must operate. Thanks to Manko’s painstaking research and astute mastery of business operations, readers of Ding Dong! Call from Avon! see the inside of an organization with blind spots, slow responses, bad decisions and mismanagement.

Indeed, Manko’s deep and detailed account of Avon’s business history can be a bit overwhelming for some readers. Nonetheless, her nuanced history of a business, industry, and women’s group evolving over time will make a lasting contribution to our understanding of how economics and gender typically play out. If we are to build a distinctly gendered economic theory on which to understand the disadvantages of women and strive for their financial freedom, books like this are essential.

Ding Dong! Call from Avon! The Women and Men of Avon Products, Incorporated is published by OUP USA (£ 26.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, purchase a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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