Ding Dong! Avon Calling! by Katina Manko review – a fresh take on the cosmetics industry

At first glance, some readers may expect Ding Dong! Avon Calling! to be a frothy history of cosmetics. Others might assume that the book will belong on the long list of accusatory treatises about capitalism and the power of beauty advertising to enslave women. Fortunately, Katina Manko’s thoroughly researched and deftly written book on Avon products presents a fresh take on the beauty and fashion industry, one that breaks with and demystifies the cliches of the past.

Manko focuses her history on the sales agents who rang the doorbells. 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: to start and grow a woman-owned business. Rather than dismiss them as foolish housewives or corporate dupes, she treats these agents’ entrepreneurial ambitions with respect, dispassionately analysing their achievements and failures.

Importantly, though Manko repeatedly points to the white, middle-class nature of the Avon distribution system and consumer base, her analysis documents the barriers to economic engagement that Avon reps faced as women.

In the early 20th century, for instance, Avon employed an all-female cadre of travelling recruiters. Mostly single – often widowed or divorced– these women continually met with resistance from the husbands of potential recruits, who had the power to refuse permission for their wives to sign a contract, as well as to withhold the $5 fee. In a letter, published in 1926 with the headline “The Adamant Husband”, one recruiter wrote: “I had two promising workers today all ready and eager to work when Mr. Husband interrupts. He has the advantage there, as he furnished the $5.00 and likes to show his authority. But finally found one whose husband agrees to help. ‘May his tribe increase.’”

1960s UK Avon Magazine AdvertEXPY2T 1960s UK Avon Magazine Advert
Photograph: Retro AdArchives/Alamy

As is still the case in many countries today, in the early 1900s, women in the US lost all economic autonomy under the law, including their own identity, when they married. Even after laws were eased in most of the states, women were held back from economic participation by widespread personnel practices that forced them out of employment as soon as they became wives. These so-called “marriage bars” were rationalised by the belief that a wife’s service to her husband must take priority over all other aspects of her life. In the mid-60s such practices were declared illegal. Yet informal expectations perpetuated women’s dependency.

Even in the 80s, an African American woman given an award by Avon for developing a business that provided 24-hour daycare to minorities and disabled people, remarked: “As a woman entrepreneur, I am challenged by the reality of a man’s world and by the task of being the boss at the office and my husband’s wife at home.” It was not until 1982 that the supreme court struck down the final state law holding that a man had the right to total 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 did approve, the sales agent arrangement offered by Avon gave them an alternative route to economic viability. Gloria Steinem remarked in a recent interview: “One of the most important things I learned about money is that I could support myself and buy freedom, despite all the instruction to my generation of women to marry a good provider.”

Steinem’s own cohort was, in fact, the generation most associated with the famous “Ding Dong! Avon calling!” slogan; that is, the women of the Feminine Mystique era from which the second wave feminism of the 70s emerged. However, though Manko frequently remarks on the disproportionate place that married women played in Avon operations and culture, she doesn’t interrogate this one crucial motivator – the desire to avoid being forced into marriage merely to survive.

She does however analyse one cultural expectation that is as entrenched in some feminist thought today as it was in the popular mind of the early 1900s. The belief that women should make money only for humanitarian causes and not for their own personal gain was a taboo well recognised by Avon recruiters, so communications sometimes danced around an aim that the company well knew was driving the women in their system – making money for themselves.

The even-handed treatment of Avon in this book is laudable. Manko gives the erstwhile California Perfume Company credit for breaking with the prescribed economic role imposed on women in 19th and 20th-century America, yet also reveals the way that the company’s rhetoric sugar-coated what was really a rather radical economic proposition by wrapping it in ideals of domesticity and respectability. She takes Avon to task for their failure to include women in the ranks of management; but gives the firm due credit for their generous support of breast cancer research, as well as their commitment to ending domestic violence.

Few historians have been as fair to corporations as Manko is to Avon and even fewer have been as knowledgeable about the strategies available to corporations or the parameters within which they must work. As a result of Manko’s painstaking research and astute grasp of business operations, readers of Ding Dong! Avon Calling! see the inside of an organisation with blind spots, slow responses, bad decisions and poor management.

Indeed, Manko’s deep and detailed account of Avon’s business history may be a bit overwhelming for some readers. Nevertheless, her nuanced tale of a company, an industry and a group of women 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 distinctively gendered theory of economics from which to understand women’s disadvantages and to fight for their financial liberty, books like this are essential.

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

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