Helen Gurley Brown: In Memoriam

As any regular reader of this blog can tell you, I identify as a working-class feminist. Class is central to my identity not just as a feminist but as a social justice advocate. But I haven’t always been this way. The idea of class divisions within feminism never even occurred to me until I started learning about Helen Gurley Brown, the prolific writer, editor, and feminist who died yesterday at the age of 90.

Brown not only edited Cosmo from 1964 to 1997, she is also considered by some historians to have kicked off second-wave feminism with the publishing of her advice book, Sex and the Single Girl in 1962. Brown gave new voice to single women in America, urging them to reclaim their sexuality and to use it to get ahead in their personal lives and the workplace.

The original “Single Girl”

Naturally, I was extremely saddened to hear that Brown had passed away. Learning about this woman’s life and reading her work completely changed my take on feminism and life. In remembrance, I thought all of you wonderful readers should learn about the amazing life of one of America’s most vocal sex-positive feminists, and the infamous editor of Cosmo.

Helen Gurley Brown grew up during the Great Depression, which left her an incredibly pragmatic woman. Raised by a single mother who struggled to keep a job to support both Helen and her chronically ill sister, Helen worked from a young age. But she got her big break when she landed work at the Foote, Cone, & Belding advertising agency. She rose quickly there, and became the highest paid woman in the advertising industry in the early 1960s.

But her most prolific work was not done writing copy. In 1962 she, with the help of her husband David Brown (a renowned movie producer), published a book that shook the moral foundations of America. Sex and the Single Girl was Helen’s advice book for any woman in America living on her own, working a steady job, and pursuing not marriage like all of her peers, but a fun, carefree, independent lifestyle, which included having sex. The book acted as a roughly 200-page advice column for single, working women. In it, Brown encouraged this particular group to continue on, and espoused the benefits of staying single, and never settling for less than the perfect man. Brown also offered financial advice, proving that young women did not need to be dependent upon their parents or a man (although in her view it is entirely acceptable to receive expensive gifts from male companions). She also flouted the “fabulous” sex lives of single girls, something that was incredibly taboo in a society that still places much value on a young woman’s virginity

This book paved the way for Brown to take over the helm of the floundering Cosmopolitan magazine in 1964. From the beginning of her tenure, she had a particular vision in mind for the magazine. In her originial proposal for the magazine, Gurley Brown wrote,

“Everything in Cosmopolitan should be upward and onward, not in a goody-goody sense but in a realistic sense. I personally don’t feel that the world is going to the dogs or that young people are inferior to their counterparts of a previous generation. Our moral codes have changed slightly, but what we have now is a lot better than the days of stricter moral codes when there was child labor, no equality for women, no federal aid for destitute people, plenty of robber barons and lynching. If we point out wrongs in Cosmopolitan, and I think there should be a minimum of preachment and sermonizing, we should say specifically every time what people can do about those wrongs…When one puts down a copy of Cosmopolitan, he or she should feel better, if not downright wonderful. There should be lots of self-help, specific advice on how to do things; not so many global and cosmic pieces. The magazine should be closer to where modern women live than it is now. We should take cognizance of the fact that our nation is undergoing a cultural as well as a social revolution, but even an article on pop art can have a lot of you in it.”[1]

This passage portrays Gurley Brown’s devotion to working class women. She makes it clear that by focusing on too many “global and cosmic” she and her staff would alienate their readership. A working girl herself, Gurley Brown knew that articles like this would make her readers feel powerless. By focusing on problems they could solve in their day-to-day lives, Gurley Brown offered them a sense of empowerment that was sometimes hard to find in that time period. This was just one part of her personal approach to the magazine.

Overall, Brown’s crowning achievement was her ability to bring feminism to the masses. Throughout her editorship at Cosmo, she tackled tough issues like birth control and single motherhood. She also demanded that only women appear on the cover, not women with their husbands, women with children, etc. Just. Women. She resented the idea that women be defined by anyone but themselves and their interests, and made sure that her readers knew that they should always put themselves first. Brown showed her readers that you could be interested in fashion, sex, and men and still be a fervent feminist. She was wholly committed to reproductive justice throughout her life, and often attended marches supporting women’s right to abortion access.

But above all, Brown never apologized for her vision of feminism. She stayed committed throughout her life to supporting working, single women, and to making feminism and politics accessible to their hectic lives. And she always stood by her motto, “Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere.”

[1] Jennifer Scanlon, Bad Girls Go Everywhere: The Life of Helen Gurley Brown (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 148.

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