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Helena Rubinstein and the Women’s Liberation Movement

Thursday, July 17, 2014| Permalink

Earlier this week Michèle Fitoussi wrote about her fascination, her research materials, and her favorite episodes from Helena Rubinstein's life. Her biography on Helena, Helena Rubinstein: The Woman Who Invented Beauty, is now available. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Helena Rubinstein's career took off at a time when, at least in terms of beauty and hygiene, emancipation was there for the taking, and women were choosing to emancipate themselves. Helena’s intuition, as well as lucky timing, and of course her extraordinary talent, certainly helped her succeed. She understood that beauty was seen as a ‘new power’, she managed to bring make-up out of the theatres and brothels for ‘honest’ women to appropriate. She taught women how to look after themselves, she democratized access to beauty products and anticipated the importance of science and hygiene in the industry.

For the emancipation of women was not merely the right to vote, work, and achieve financial independence - fashion and beauty also played a great role. Thanks to Poiret and Chanel, women were free of restraining corsets, allowing them the freedom to move, take part in sports, walk, drive, and ride horses just like men. Thanks to Helena Rubinstein, they learnt to apply makeup or improve their skin – she had no intention of creating mere dolls, but rather women capable of looking after themselves. In 1912 in New York, the suffragettes protesting for the right to vote all wore bright red lipstick; challenging the societal norms of the time by wearing ‘taboo’ make-up. When Helena Rubinstein arrived in the United States three years later, women were ready to follow her advice. Ironically, she rarely used any skin creams herself – but she had a beautiful complexion around which she built her brand.

So in a way, Helena played an important role in the women’s liberation movement, but perhaps unconsciously so, or in her own – non-political – way. I don’t believe this ruthless businesswoman and ingenious entrepreneur was much of a feminist.

Michèle Fitoussi was born in Tunisia to French parents, and has lived in Paris since the age of five. She worked as a journalist at Elle magazine for years, interviewing world leaders in areas as varied as politics, human sciences, sports, literature and the media. She is the author of screenplays, fiction and non-fiction, including the international bestsellers Superwoman’s had Enough and The Prisoner. She also co-wrote Stolen Lives with Malika Oufkir, which sold more than a million copies throughout the world and remained on the New York Times best-seller list for 25 weeks after being stamped as an “Oprah Book” by Oprah Winfrey. Her newest book, Helena Rubinstein: The Woman Who Invented Beauty, is now available. Her forthcoming book about the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai will be published in France this September.

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