Barbie's Original Fashion Designer On How the Feminist Movement Kick-Started Barbie's Career

barbie careers
credit:Barbie Journal 1992 (Finnish)/vaniljapulla/flickr/Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Barbie has had a lot of careers of the years, the firsts of which included flight attendant and nurse, both in 1961. And yet, it wasn’t until the 1970s that she truly become a career woman.

Carol Spencer, Barbie’s first fashion designer, told the Washington Post,

“The women’s movement came onboard in the ’60s, and there was the Beatles, Elvis. We followed all of it. Then, in 1972, we wanted to test if children would buy fashions geared toward an occupation.”

And so, Dr. Barbie was born.

Carol explained that the inspiration came from her personal life. She recalled,

“I had just had surgery, and all the doctors were men. I thought, why not have Barbie as a doctor? I gave her a combination pack of doctor and surgeon.”

The original package (which has since been recreated for collectors) included a set of full scrubs, a white doctor’s coat, a stethoscope, an x-ray, a med school diploma, and a telephone.

The was supposed to be one more accessory, which Mattel quickly nixed (and for good reason).

Carol said,

“As I was thinking about the profession, [I thought] it’s natural that doctors give prescriptions for pills. I found these wonderful little pink pills at a farmers’ market in L.A. They were amphetamines. Of course I didn’t know anything about them. Let me tell you, they took them out. Barbie got a prescription pad instead.”

Since then, Barbie has had countless careers including astronaut, president, aerobics instructor, chef, air force pilot, olympic gymnast, NASCAR driver, astrophysicist, bee keeper, wildlife conservationist, farmers market vendor, and so many more.

It’s one of the reasons that Carol feels that Barbie is truly a feminist at heart. She told the Post,

“I think we did blaze a trail with that, and we were all very quietly members of NOW [National Organization for Women]. We didn’t flaunt ourselves or march, but we were. And we found that children absolutely loved the careers.”

Of course, the public hasn’t always agreed. For years, Barbie was the target of many feminist campaigns who complained that the doll’s body proportions and western beauty ideals promoted an unhealthy body image for children.

As a result, Mattel released a new line of Barbies in 2016 that included a petite Barbie, a curvy Barbie, and a tall Barbie.

In the years since, the company has continued to expand the Barbie line to include Barbies with various disabilities, skin colors, skin conditions (like vitiligo), and more.

And yet it was only until the promotion of the 2023 Barbie movie starring Margot Robbie that the public finally started singing a different tune. Suddenly, Barbie was a feminist again. She was a pioneer, a career woman, a role model. She didn’t need a husband and she only had a boyfriend because he made for a cute accessory.

Whether or not Barbie’s rehabilitated image will last has yet to be seen. But in the meantime, we’ll enjoy watching Barbie in all her glory up on the big screen.

The Barbie movie hit theaters July 21, 2023.

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Lena Finkel
Lena Finkel is the Editor and Founder of Femestella. Prior to starting Femestella, she worked at People, InStyle, Tiger Beat, and Sesame Workshop (aka Sesame Street). She loves all things Real Housewives and Vanderpump Rules. When she's not busy binge-watching TV, you can find her hanging out with her tuxedo cat Tom.