Failure is Impossible
As a 1950s housewife my mother was “a woman who lunched.” The Mrs. So-and Sos-who went by their spouses’ first and last names- were unable to pursue careers. The mindset of the era was a wife who worked meant her husband was a poor provider; a bank- issued paper bearing the words: PAY TO THE ORDER OF were an attack on his masculinity. Moreover, the little lady’s real job was in the PTA, the kitchen, the bedroom. And so she lunched.
Mercifully, because of trailblazing feminists, Stepford wives were allowed to shed their ankle bracelets, to have a life more encompassing than suds in the city. Thus they morphed into the women who launched-instead of waiting for a glass slipper they shattered glass ceilings. One of these, Josephine Esther Mentzer, began life in an apartment over her Hungarian father’s hardware store in Queens. Armed with her uncle’s cold creams and her own innate chutzpah, she reinvented herself into the cosmetic queen Estee Lauder. Among her roster of friends and clients were Princesses Grace and Diana, First Lady Nancy Reagan, and the Duchess of Windsor.
When she passed the torch to her sons-the Kennedy’s of the beauty world-she left them a legacy of billions. Her son Ronald Lauder’s $135 million purchase of Klimpt’s world-famous painting Woman in Gold, a luxurious fin de siècle icon from her father’s native Hungary, would have met with her smile of approval. Similarly, Estee would have nodded her head-always perfectly coiffed-at her daughter-in-law Evelyn’s pink ribbon campaign, which became the ubiquitous symbol of the battle against breast cancer.
To historians the Battle of the Bulge is a chapter in the story of World War II; to others, it is a fight against ever-expanding waistlines. And, to an enterprising lady, it presented opportunity. Her slimming of America made her a modern Midas, with a fortune built on body issues. Ralph Waldo Emerson observed, “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.”
Sara Blakely, the woman who launched a Spandex mousetrap, was going to a summer party and wanted to debut a pair of slacks. The problem was that although her size- two body looked svelte in the garment, she was not thrilled with the faux pas of the dreaded VPL-visible panty line. She felt that other attendees need not be privy as to whether her underpants were bikini, thong, or granny. Unable to purchase any product that would give her a smooth look, she made her own. Spandex-that made her Forbes worthy-has been good to Ms. Blakely, whose empire’s slogan is, “Changing the world one butt at a time.”
When one thinks of the newspapers of yesteryear, the image that comes to mind is men with ink-stained fingers bending over their printing presses. And the media tycoons behind the scenes cast the giant shadows of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. In the contemporary era, the formerly testosterone-fueled media has been impacted by Greek-born Arianna Huffington. On a shoestring budget she launched the eponymous Huffington Post, subsequently sold to AOL for $315 million. As a well-connected wielder of political clout-she has the world leaders on her smartphone’s speed dial-if angered she can huff and puff.
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice famously begins, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Alas, this observation is 50 shades of wishful thinking and hence the $2.4 billion online dating industry. Enter Bumble.
Whitney Wolfe was twenty-three when she co-founded the smartphone app Tinder. When her partners forced her resignation-with a one million payoff-she decided to launch her own female-run company. Bumble created a huge buzz and Ms. Wolfe appeared on Forbes “30 Under 30.” It’s good to be Queen.
“Backwards, and in high heels”
The female pioneers deserve all accolades, especially as they had to pull themselves up by their bootstraps-or, in their case, 1950s black pumps. Their difficulty in leveling the playing-field can be illustrated a by quotation by Bob Thanes in his Los Angeles comic strip Frank and Ernest. The friends are gazing at a billboard announcing a Fred Astaire film festival with the accompanying caption. “Sure he was great, but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did…backwards and in high heels.” Although in the socioeconomic seesaw girls are still in the air, gender equality is on the horizon. However, in the words of Dylan, “the times they are a changing.” And they are doing so because of ladies who do not sit well in the backseat.
We can take succor from the women who made it possible for “the weaker sex” to partake in the arena of the ballot box. Susan Brownell Anthony, on her deathbed at her Rochester home, told her friend that it “seems so cruel” to die without seeing her suffrage dream come to fruition. It was her fate to be a Moses, denied entry into the Promised Land. Yet her spirit remained indefatigable. At her birthday celebration in Washington, D.C. a few days earlier, she had spoken of those who had struggled alongside her. “With such women consecrating their lives, failure is impossible.”
This guest post was authored by Marlene Wagman-Geller
Marlene Wagman-Geller is the author of several books, including –
- Once Again to Zelda: The Stories Behind Literature’s Most Intriguing Dedications (Perigree/Penguin 2008).
- Eureka!: The Surprising Stories Behind the Ideas That Shaped the World (Perigree/Penguin 2010).
- And the Rest Is History: The Famous (and Infamous) First Meetings of the World’s Most Passionate Lovers (Perigree/Penguin 2011)
- Behind Every Great Man: The Forgotten Women Behind the world’s Famous and Infamous (Source Books 2015)
- (Mango Press 2018)
Her books have been reviewed in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and Washington Post.
Wagman-Geller received her teaching credentials from the University of Toronto and San Diego State University. She currently teaches high school English in National City, California, and lives with her family in San Diego.