To some, Helen Gurley Brown, who died two Mondays ago at the age of 90, was the patron saint of the single girl. Though you may not have known her name before, you likely know her work. As the Editor-in-Chief of Cosmopolitan magazine from 1965 to 1997, Brown brought conversations about single womanhood and sex to waiting rooms, newsstands and coffee tables everywhere.
Her 1962 title, Sex and the Single Girl, made her a prescient precursor to Carrie Bradshaw, who once aimed to have sex with as much gusto and abandon as a man. Brown was a purveyor of the sex-smart, powerful woman, one who presided over her professional life with as much zeal as she did her romantic rendezvouses. In 1965, Brown, who had experience in the advertising world but not as a magazine editor, was sought to revamp Cosmopolitan Magazine. As Margalit Fox noted in the New York Times’ obituary on Brown: “[Before Brown, Cosmopolitan’s] target reader was a married suburbanite, preoccupied with maintaining the perfect figure, raising the prefect child and making the perfect Jell-O salad.”
Under Brown’s editorial direction, Cosmopolitan went from a monthly for apron-bearing housewives to a page-turner for the fun, fearless female, one with a voracious appetite for sex and an eye on a formidable career. As David Plotz wrote for Slate Magazine in 2000:
Brown was not teaching girls to be geishas. She was teaching them to be bosses…Brown barraged them with sound advice: Work hard, be punctual, be tough, don’t fear competition, save your money.
Brown, it seemed, was her own best example, known to clock no fewer than twelve hours a day while at the helm of Cosmopolitan, from which she stepped down in 1997, but continued to edit its international editions. She catapulted the US magazine’s circulation from 800,000 to 3 million during her tenure. She argued that for Cosmo girls, an appetite for sex, money and power should be indulged and not quelled to appease the leering eyes of polite society. If sex was not only about pleasure, it was also a means to an end, as Brown believed that amid all of that punnany power, a woman would still need to snag a man for keeps. As Margalit Fox writes:
Yes, readers would need to land Mr. Right someday – the magazine left little doubt that he was still every woman’s grail. But in an era in which an unmarried woman was called an old maid at 23, the new Cosmopolitan have readers license not to settle for settling down with just anyone, and to enjoy the search with blissful abandon for however long it took.
While many heralded Brown as a first-wave feminist icon among the ranks of Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, some rejected Brown’s sex-as-currency stance. Brown was not one to shun the inappropriate advances of a male supervisor or colleague, once defending Justice Clarence Thomas when he faced sexual harassment charges in the 1990s, citing that sexual attention from men was “almost always flattering.”
Women’s liberation advocates spoke ill of what they considered Brown’s regressive brand of feminism, a man-centric breed of sexual politics, which appeared to typify the theory of the male gaze. As it turns out, during her 32 years as Cosmopolitan’s editor, Brown’s husband, film producer David Brown, wrote the magazine’s cover lines, which often focused on snagging and pleasing a man.
While some detractors denounced the onslaught of “do-me feminism” and what Helaine Olen called its “logical end game” (which Olen cites as a modern-day birth rate of 40 percent for single mothers, economic inequality, the gender wage gap, and the attack on reproductive rights in an article for Forbes), Brown is regaled for ushering an era in which woman could shirk the prevailing conventions of twentieth-century womanhood, both in the bedroom and in the board room.
Helen Gurley Brown sought to create a space for a new kind of woman during an era in which women’s voices and ambitions were all but stifled. By undoing the prevailing narrative on femininity, she widened the scope for the acceptance of Cosmo girls who had made different choices than their predecessors. Plotz’s profile of Brown (who was married to her husband for 51 years before his death in 2010) ended with this: “Brown’s own life reflects a sin that is much more modern – and, in self-help America, much more forgivable – than the one she is accused of…She is too interested in pleasing herself.”
Today’s Cosmopolitan readers are often between the age of 18 and 34, generations removed from the first-wave and early second wave of women’s liberation. Even for women of color, the moves made by Brown and her successors created an impact on concepts of femininity at large. Are today’s Cosmogirls of all colors the beneficiaries of Brown’s stewardship, or are they bearing the brunt of Helaine Olen’s aforementioned end game?
Sound off, readers: Was Helen Gurley Brown’s Cosmopolitan approach to redefining womanhood problematic? Or has the era of the Cosmogirl been good for women?
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