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04.16.09

The Sexual Revolutionary

Helen Gurley Brown made it good to be bad, but was she a great feminist? A new biography argues that Cosmo’s editor belongs in the pantheon with Betty Friedan. By Kara Jesella.

Helen Gurley Brown never looked like the mother of modern feminism. The magazine editor’s leopard prints and high heels were a little showy for a '60s radical; her articles explaining how to please a man in bed would never get published in Ms.

Still, in Bad Girls Go Everywhere: The Life of Helen Gurley Brown, Bowdoin College Gender and Women’s Studies professor Jennifer Scanlon provocatively argues that the iconic former editor of Cosmopolitan magazine deserves her place in history alongside the heavyweights of the second wave of the women’s movement. Besides supporting abortion rights and the Equal Rights Amendment, Brown’s bestselling book, Sex and the Single Girl, advocated for the sexual freedom of nice, single, urban, working girls in 1962, a year before Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was published.

Brown’s vision of feminism was intensely pragmatic and resolutely shrewd; she didn’t want to revolutionize American culture, she wanted to manipulate it.

Her philosophy—that sex, fashion, and beauty can be fun; that there’s nothing wrong with women having jobs and making money; that domesticity need not be stultifying; that the word “girl” was sexy, not sexist—infused the magazine’s pages for over 30 years, reaching millions of young women around the country.

jesella-helen-gurley-brown---book-cover
Bad Girls Go Everywhere: the Life of Helen Gurley Brown. By Jennifer Scanlon. 288 pages. Oxford University Press. $27.95. ()

Today, we have feminist pornographers and sex-perts; women at pro-choice marches wear form-fitting pink T-shirts emblazoned with the words “this is what a feminist looks like.” Even knitting has been reclaimed as a feminist act. Still, it’s hard to argue that Brown, whose political philosophy touted the liberating power of sex and shopping (though she rarely covered or used the rhetoric of the women’s movement in Cosmopolitan), is patient zero for this evolution.

Yes, like Brown, lots of third-wave feminists refer to themselves as “girls,” but that’s partly because many of them reclaimed the word in the 1990s, when they were girls; some were even riot grrrls, high-school and college-aged feminists who felt marginalized in the male-dominated punk scene and were particularly concerned with the issues that affect younger women, like date rape and sexual harassment.

And Brown’s valorization of female pleasure was also in circulation within the women’s movement, and popular with radical feminists like Ellen Willis. The health compendium Our Bodies, Ourselves was owned by millions of 1970s moms and read surreptitiously by millions of their curious young daughters, who could find tips on how to achieve orgasm, the pleasures of lesbian sexuality, and a collection of surprisingly dirty female fantasies alongside a takedown of the patriarchal health-care system and advice on learning karate in case of assault.

Plus, plenty of other popular women’s magazines in the 1960s ran stories on sex, beauty, and fashion—but they did so alongside stories about the burgeoning women’s movement. Editors of today’s third-wave feminist publications, like Bust, Bitch, and Jezebel, have said that they were inspired by Sassy, the now-defunct mainstream teen magazine that radicalized its readers with stories like “Are Beauty Pageants Bogus?” and “10 Reasons to Attend a Boy-Free Institution” while providing them advice on how to wear their mini dresses or snag a cute indie-rock prom date.

As Scanlon notes, Brown never apologized for her magazine’s glamazon covers. Today’s young feminists might wear eyeliner, but they still condemn impossible-to-achieve beauty standards and make icons out of women like the Beth Ditto, the plus-size lead singer of The Gossip.

Helen Gurley Brown was an unrepentant capitalist; third-wave women are apt to talk about the anti-consumerist impulse behind making their own scarves, which they consider a holdover from the do-it-yourself punk culture of the 1990s. And though it’s true that Brown was one of the only self-proclaimed '60s feminists to tout the pleasures of domesticity, third-wave women’s rethinking of the home may be more of a reaction to growing up as the latch-key kids of divorced parents than a manifestation of the magazine editor’s exhortations to “Think of yourself as a star sapphire. Your apartment is your setting.”

But the biggest fault line between Brown and today’s feminists is in the attitude toward motherhood. While Cosmo’ s Grande Dame thought that the thing that held women back was the “built-in mechanism in their bodies that allows them to have babies,” founding third-wave feminists like Rebecca Walker and Amy Richards have both written books reconciling feminism and motherhood; plenty of Gen X and Gen Y mothers are members of political mom-centric groups like MomsRising; and many female bloggers write about gender, motherhood, and politics.

Still, Brown’s “good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere” ethic is far from dead, especially among the millions of American women who don’t call themselves feminists (even if they have benefited from the women’s movement’s many gains). Brown’s view of feminism was intensely pragmatic and resolutely shrewd; she didn’t want to revolutionize American culture, she wanted to manipulate it.

In this way, Brown’s vision of a world in which women could make money, have fun, and have guilt-free sex was just as prescient as Scanlon claims. It’s apparent in the attitude of nearly every high-powered, designer-clad, Pilates-perfected protagonist in nearly every romantic comedy—the ones who use their charms, looks, and wits to manipulate their equally high-powered paramours into giving them expensive engagement rings while still expecting to be taken seriously as equals in both the boardroom and the home.

It’s right there in the you-go-girl platitudes of daytime television audiences supporting women who defy bad boyfriends and in the rebellious stance that infuses books like Mommies Who Drink. It’s in every episode of the seemingly inexhaustible Sex and the City, from Carrie’s pursuit of Manolo Blahniks and Mr. Big to Samantha’s promiscuity and commitment-phobia to Charlotte’s “I choose my choice!” self-defense when she decides to stay at home after getting married.

“What we want and have always wanted are options—be they something as trivial as the mini or as profound as legal abortion,” Helen Gurley Brown once said of feminism’s aims. That idea is as relevant as ever—and we have the original Cosmo girl to thank.

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Kara Jesella is the co-author of How Sassy Changed My Life: A Love Letter to the Greatest Teen Magazine of All Time, published by Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.