I was saddened to read that Helen Gurley Brown died on Monday, August 13th. Earlier this year, I studied some of her work as part of a Modern History module. At the time it incensed me- I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Here was a woman praising the wonder of casual sex, telling me that being a single woman was the most empowering thing I could be… but that at some point I would need to get married. Because I just would. And when I found out she was responsible for the ‘Cosmo girl’, ooh, was I mad. Aside from more obvious things like atomic bombs and cars without seatbelts, the Cosmo girl has to be one of the more dangerous inventions of the 20th century. She’s still around today, promoting what can only be a projection of Gurley Brown’s own opinions on how to be a modern woman.
But when I heard she had passed away, something inside me thought that I ought to re-evaluate my image of this woman before I wrote her off completely, my own prejudices and preconceptions rejecting her ideas as firmly as those who read her original works when they were published.
In truth, Gurley Brown was, in fact, a very admirable woman. From a young age, she claimed, she knew that she didn’t want a typical life of domesticity. She sought a career instead, when the prevailing image around her was of young apple-pie mothers wrapping her children in cotton wool and making life comfortable for her hardworking husband.
You could argue that in her work, Gurley Brown undermines feminism, that in entering into the affairs she advocated, and by maintaining your appearance to specific standards, by default you are submitting to patriarchy. Indeed, the assumption that a woman should always be fashionably dressed and have a certain type of figure (dieting to obtain this if necessary) conforms to Western standards of female attractiveness that have, in the views of some, been imposed by men. However, I think this speaks more of Gurley Brown’s own inner feeling that this is how she should look. She continued to dress fashionably until her death, staying rake-thin and undergoing cosmetic procedures to stay what she deemed to be beautiful.
Criticisms aside, rage-tinted feminist glasses removed; there is undeniable value in Gurley Brown’s writings. She taught that a woman can support herself, make her own way in the world, and should do so without feeling bad about it. Gurley Brown herself went against the grain and paved her own way as a career girl, becoming the highest paid woman working in advertising on the west coast of the US. If that’s not an achievement, I don’t know what is. More importantly, though, she taught that a woman can, and should, have sex with who she wants, and again should do so without guilt.
The only real fault to be picked with Gurley Brown is in her use of erotic capital. If men hit on her, she would run with it. And why shouldn’t she have? Far from giving men what they wanted, she was getting what she wanted. She saw sex in different terms to those who were shocked by what she wrote. To her, it was an act both she and the man could gain satisfaction from with no consequence.
This idea was central to the sexual revolution, which was just taking off when ‘Sex and the Single Girl’, perhaps her best-known work, was published in 1962. The Pill was becoming more readily available, though tended to be prescribed to women who didn’t want any more children than they had already. Literary history showed men could have as many affairs as they wanted without consequence. Women were expelled from society, and even killed off (see Tess, Emma, Anna et al) for their exploits. In an ideal marriage, it seemed, the wife should cater to the husband’s needs and put aside her own desires in order to do this. But times, Gurley-Brown noticed, were a-changing. The arrival of this new form of birth control meant that in terms of sexuality, women could now be equal to men. Without the consequence of pregnancy, who was to stop a girl taking control of her own body?
To quote the woman herself:
‘The message was: So you’re single. You can still have sex. You can have a great life. And if you marry, don’t just sponge off a man or be the gold-medal-winning mother. Don’t use men to get what you want in life- get it for yourself.’
The likes of Germaine Greer and Kate Millett rejected the idea that Gurley Brown was a feminist, but, on reflection, I don’t think there’s any question that she was. How can a woman who stands up for the freedoms of herself and women around her not be a feminist? Though her ideologies may not be as developed as the likes of Greer’s or Freidan’s, they touch on what I think is the key idea underpinning feminism: women have choices too. Should they so choose, they can have the same freedoms as men.
No matter what methods she employs, when a woman rises to the profile that Gurley Brown enjoyed for most of her life, you need to step back and look at just what it was that got her there. More often than not, underneath it all, you find a person who firstly wanted to change her world. As you trace her journey, you find that in the process, she has in some way changed our world. That is nothing short of inspirational.
RIP Helen Gurley Brown, 1922-2012