Handler served as the president of Mattel from 1945 until 1973
Meet the woman behind Barbie.
Ruth Handler is best known for inventing the Barbie doll in 1959 and serving as the first president of Mattel, a company she co-founded with her husband Elliot Handler, from 1945 to 1973.
Not only did Mattel start as a family business, but Barbie herself was inspired by Handler’s daughter, as she wanted to create a 3D version of her daughter’s paper dolls.
“You must remember, Barbie was the first fashion doll for children in the form of an adult,” Kim Culmone, SVP of Barbie design at Mattel tells PEOPLE in the new Barbie special issue. “Ruth was able to sell Barbie in a toy industry that was hesitant to think of a doll that a girl could use to project her hopes and inspirations.”
The result was a long-lasting legacy that has continued to inspire young girls for over six decades. “Our purpose is to inspire every kid that plays with Barbie,” says SVP Kim Culmone. “Especially girls who need a role model to help show them that they can be anything.”
That ideology and more are explored in Greta Gerwig’s anticipated Barbie movie starring Margot Robbie, of which Mattel is a producer.
From her career background to her history with Barbie, here’s everything to know about Handler.
She was the daughter of Polish immigrants
Handler was born Ruth Marianna Mosko on Nov. 4, 1916 in Denver, Colorado, to Polish-Jewish immigrants, Jacob and Ida Moskowicz, per PBS.
She and her husband Elliot Handler were high school sweethearts
Handler and her husband, with whom she later founded Mattel, were high school sweethearts. They married in 1938 and moved to Los Angeles shortly after, where Elliot began making furniture out of two new types of plastics, Lucite and Plexiglas. As a result, the two began a furniture business, with Handler working as the sales force for the business.
She previously worked at Paramount
Though Handler held many different jobs over the years, one of her first when she and her husband moved to Los Angeles was working at Paramount as a movie studio secretary.
Her daughter inspired her to create Barbie
Handler was inspired to create Barbie after watching her daughter Barbara, the namesake of the doll, and her friends play with paper dolls. “I discovered something very important: They were using these dolls to project their dreams of their own futures as adult women.… Wouldn’t it be great if we could take that play pattern and three-dimensionalize it?” she recalled in her memoir.
When Ruth pitched the idea to her husband Elliot and their then-partner Harold “Matt” Matson — whose names inspired the Mattel brand name (Matt+El) — both were skeptical, she recalled in her 1994 book Dream Doll.
“‘Ruth, it won’t work,’ I was told flatly.” Though their team pointed to prohibitive production costs, Handler felt they were reacting instead to Barbie’s very feminine shape.
“I really think that the squeamishness of those designers—every last one of them male—stemmed mostly from the fact that the doll would have breasts. Even Elliot, who has an uncanny knack for correctly predicting what others will buy, feared that no mother would buy her daughter a doll with a chest,” she recalled.
During a 1956 family trip to Switzerland, Handler and her daughter spotted a novelty doll (inspired by an adult comic strip) in the window of a Lucerne toy shop. Once again, she was convinced that her vision had merit. “Here were the breasts, the small waist, the long, tapered legs I had enthusiastically described for the designers all those years ago,” recalled Handler.
She brought the Lilli doll home and put Jack Ryan, Mattel’s new VP of research and development, on the project of adapting the doll for American girls. Just three years later, Barbie was born.
She was a sponsor of The Mickey Mouse Club
Per PBS, Handler paid $500,000 to become the sole sponsor of the Mickey Mouse Club, which at the time was the value of the entire Mattel Company. Though it was a risk, it paid off as she was able to market Mattel toys directly to children watching, not their parents.
She created prosthetics for breast cancer survivors
In 1970, Handler was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a modified radical mastectomy as a result. Her own experience with the disease led her to create a new company, Nearly Me, which developed prosthetics for women who had undergone mastectomies.
She resigned from Mattel in the 1970s
Amid reports of fraudulent financial reports, Handler resigned as Mattel’s president in 1973. She and her husband ended up leaving the company altogether in 1975, per Biography.com.
Handler was indicted on charges of fraud and false reporting to the Securities and Exchange Commission in 1978, to which she pled no contest. As a result, she was sentenced to 2,500 hours of community service and a $57,000 fine, Biography.com reports.
She later said her breast cancer diagnosis in 1970 left her “unfocused” about Mattel’s reorganization at the time, eventually leading to her resignation, per The Guardian.
She died in April 2002
April 27, 2002, Handler died at age 85 following complications from surgery for colon cancer. Her husband died nine years later on July 21, 2011, at the age of 95.
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