When she was seven years old, our daughter Shannon questioned Ruth Handler—then CEO of Mattel and creator of “Barbie”—on the untapped potential of that plastic paragon of playthings. She got more than she bargained for.
Spinning away from a TV commercial where “G.I. Joe” was flashing about in robust acts of derring-do, Shannon demanded an explanation. “How come the boy Barbies get to do all kinds of things like swing on ropes and drive Jeeps and other stuff, but all you can do with the girl Barbies is change their clothes and brush their hair, change their clothes and brush their hair, change their clothes and brush their hair?!”
We agreed with her complaint and went a step further. “You should tell Mrs. Handler, who is the person running the company that makes Barbies, what you think.” So Shannon did. In her best handwriting, she spelled out her complaint and mailed it off.
We never expected what either Ruth Handler or Shannon Daley would do from there. But both of them won our everlasting admiration as a result.
Days later, Shannon received a letter on the personal stationery of Ruth Handler. It said [in effect]:
I am so happy that you wrote to me. I think you are absolutely correct. Girl Barbies should be able to do everything that boy Barbies can do. We here at Mattel need to make sure that we do everything we can to make that happen.
I am sending you a little package so that you can begin to do the same things with your girl Barbies that people do with boy Barbies.
Thank you very much for writing to me, Shannon.
Several days later, a shoe-box sized package arrived in the mail for Shannon; the return address said “Ruth Handler”, not Mattel. Inside was a dune buggy, depicted on the box with Barbie behind the wheel and an adoring “Ken” in the passenger seat. And loose decals were in an envelope, awaiting Shannon’s own decisions about where to apply them.
And here, fifty years later, is that very dune buggy that Handler sent to Shannon, decals as she arrayed them and missing a headlight…
That was what Ruth Handler did.
And Shannon? I like to think that her voicing her dissatisfaction, and getting Handler’s response, sparked Shannon’s decades-long career advocating on behalf of children as a leader and advisor for The Children’s Defense Fund. Today the Rev. Dr. Shannon Daley-Harris leads a grant-supported, multi-disciplinary research project, “Nurturing Children with a Heart for Justice”, to enhance young children’s understanding of and commitment to justice.
Makes me think about the legendary butterfly wings stirring shivers of air that might bloom into a mighty wind. Maybe there’s a lesson in there for we who have yet to make our own voices heard in the righting of the wrongs that now plague America.