Handler, Ruth (c. 1918—)

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Handler, Ruth (c. 1918—)

American businesswoman who, with her husband Elliott, co-founded Mattel Toys and created the Barbie doll . Born Ruth Moskowicz (shortened to Mosko) around 1918 in Denver, Colorado; married (Issadore) Elliott Handler, around 1940; children: Barbara Handler; Ken Handler.

The daughter of immigrant Polish Jews, Ruth Handler describes herself in her autobiography The Ruth Handler Story, as "a fiercely independent woman, one who has always felt the need to prove myself, even when I was just a child." She was born in Denver, Colorado, around 1918 and moved to Los Angeles in 1936. Handler's scrappiness and entrepreneurial spirit was put to the test in 1945, when she and her husband Elliott, her hometown sweetheart, founded Mattel Toys, a company that made its mark under her innovative leadership. It was reportedly Handler's idea to begin marketing directly to children through television ads in 1955, and four years later, in 1959, it was she who introduced the Barbie doll. Fashioned after a German adult toy named "Lilli," and named for her daughter Barbara Handler , the doll, according to Ruth, was "created to project every little girl's dream of the future," but Barbie's overproportioned adult figure and long blonde hair were controversial from the start. According to M.G. Lord, a journalist and an expert in Barbie lore, kids loved the new doll, but their mothers were less receptive. "Mothers felt she was their worst nightmare [their fearful fantasy] of their husband's secretary," she writes in her 1994 book Forever Barbie. "In order to get around this attitude, a marketing genius at Mattel positioned the doll as a grooming tool for little girls." Hence, the doll was marketed with outfits, including shoes, jewelry, and handbags, a "fashion system."

Barbie's success put Mattel on the map. The company went public in 1960, and sales rocketed from $25 million to $75 million over the following two years. Within eight years, more than $500 million in profits were realized from Barbie alone. Around that time, Mattel introduced Barbie's male counterpart, Ken, named after Handler's son. Siblings and friends of Barbie followed, although the original doll, in countless personas and special editions, dominated the market. Those early dolls became big business in the collector's market; a 38-year-old mint-condition Barbie could fetch more than $5,000 by the year 2000.

As a business executive in what was still a male-dominated workplace, Handler faced more than her share of prejudice. She describes the indignity of being escorted through kitchens and up service elevators so as not to offend male members of clubs that barred women, and of the particularly pointed hostilities she encountered while conducting business in Japan. Handler also grappled with her own ambivalent feelings about being a working mother during a period when women were expected to stay at home with their children. Her greatest challenges, however, came during the 1970s, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy, and was then found guilty—along with several other employees—of financial misdoings at Mattel. "After the mastectomy, I never was able to grab hold of things at Mattel and regain control," she wrote about her troubles at the company. Handler pleaded nolo contendere to crimes which included manipulating stock prices by not reporting significant losses and withholding $2.4 million from the employees pension fund. Though steadfastly claiming that charges against her were "totally untrue," Handler was, nonetheless, forced to retire. She subsequently

formed the Ruthton Corporation, manufacturing and marketing breast prostheses for women who had undergone mastectomies. In 1991, she sold the company to a division of Kimberly-Clark. In 1992, Handler was named the United Jewish Appeal's first "Woman of the Year."

During the 1980s, Mattel faced further woes unrelated to Handler. After some ill-advised purchases and a substantial loss in 1983, the company was all but broke at the end of 1987. A turnaround began that year with a new chair, John Amerman, who closed plants, cut jobs, and found new ways to exploit two of Mattel's biggest money-makers: Barbie and Hot Wheels race cars. New entries into the Barbie market included a motor home, a cruise ship and various ethnic friends of Barbie. By 1988, Mattel reported earnings of $36 million. In January 1997, Amerman was succeeded by Jill Barad .


Business Section. Time. Vol. 149, no. 21. May 26, 1997, p. 62.

Jacobs, A.F., and Jessica Shaw. "Legend of the Doll," in Entertainment Weekly. February 24, 1995.

McCombie, Mel. "Barbie benders," in Women's Review of Books. June 1995.

"Q & A," in The Day [New London, CT]. Sunday, January 29, 1995.

Sheets, Ken. "How this bodacious babe got Mattel in her clutches," in Kiplinger's Personal Finance Magazine. Vol. 51, no. 8. August 1997.

suggested reading:

Handler, Ruth. Dream Doll: The Ruth Handler Story. Longmeadow Press, 1997.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts