Cosmo Editor Helen Gurley Brown: Feminist Icon?
Helen Gurley Brown, the highly influential editor of Cosmopolitan, died Monday at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia Hospital in Manhattan. She was 90 years old.
Ms. Brown, the editor of Cosmopolitan from 1965 till 1997, is widely credited with being a leader of women’s sexual empowerment and being one of the first voices to bring the idea that women not only had sex but enjoyed sex into the mainstream, both through her work with the magazine and her own books, such as the seminal Sex and the Single Girl, published in 1962. The book advised young women to become financially independent and to have a wide range of sexual experiences, a daring and risque topic at the time.
Following the success of Sex and the Single Girl, Ms. Brown–an unexperienced editor–was given Cosmopolitan, at the time an 80-year-old failing general interest magazine known mostly for publishing fiction. Despite publishing work by luminous authors such as Rudyard Kipling, Jack London, Willa Cather, and Edith Wharton, the magazine was a financial disaster. Ms. Brown recast it as a women’s interest magazine that did not shy away from frank depictions of sexuality. One of the very issues she was involved in featured a story about the controversial birth control pill, claiming it made women more ‘responsive’, as they would enjoy themselves more in bed if they were not concerned with getting pregnant.
When describing her vision for the revamped magazine:
I knew that women were having sex and loving it. I wanted my magazine to be their best friend, a platform from which I could tell them what I’d learned and talk about all the things that hadn’t been discussed before. I wanted to tell the truth: that sex is one of the three best things out there, and I don’t even know what the other two are.
The magazine popularized a concept that persists today–the Cosmo girl, the girl every buyer of the magazine theoretically wants to be. The Cosmo girl embodied a modern-day woman: sexually and professionally empowered.
But Ms. Brown’s place in the feminist canon is hotly debated. Though contemporary with many second-wave feminists such as Betty Friedan, her brand of feminism–and she did proudly call herself a “devout feminist”–stood apart from the rest of the second wave and established her as a predecessor of the third wave. She was a strident supporter of contraception, abortion rights and the ERA, and she clashed with her superiors on whether she could include depictions of lesbianism in her work. Her ‘mainstream’ feminism took criticism for the giddy consumerism she endorsed in the pages of the magazine, even as the second-wavers linked women’s liberation with the other social justice movements of the day that took deep philosophical inspiration from capitalist critiques. Ms. Brown’s faith in the system that advanced her never wavered during a time when the connections between persistent injustices and capitalism were being more explored than ever. She took criticism for the focus on landing a ‘dream man’, and for furthering idea that this aspirational Cosmo girl was a charmer who wanted nothing more than to please her man. Gloria Steinem was among those who criticized Ms. Brown, claiming that she was reinforcing the stereotypes of women as frivolous and superficial. Ms. Brown was also attacked for the provocative photos she put on the covers, which some believe did nothing but further the idea of woman as mere sex object.
It’s easy to look at the modern-day Cosmopolitan and see it as proof that Ms. Brown’s critics were right. Today’s magazine is heavily criticized for the impossible beauty standards it perpetuates. The magazine, like many others aimed at young women, retouches models and celebrities to achieve “perfection.”
However, it’s possible to see the magazine and Ms. Brown for what they were–imperfect and flawed manifestations of a certain kind of feminism–while still recognizing what they achieved. Ms. Brown’s feminism–with its emphasis on financial and career success, enjoyment of sex, and maintaining a relationship–is one practiced by millions of young women today. Ms. Brown brought sex onto mainstream news stands and into grocery check-out lines. She made it impossible for society to ignore that women liked sex and wanted to have sex on their terms.
She also contributed to modern day pop culture. Sex and the Single Girl is widely credited as the predecessor to HBO’s Sex and the City. Ms. Brown’s career path–a poor girl from Arkansas who rose from a secretary to an ad copywriter to a powerful businesswoman–is said to have partially inspired the character of Joan on Mad Men.
Ms. Brown’s life and work encapsulated many of the clashing ideologies we as modern-day feminists must navigate. What is the line between sex positivity and becoming a sexual object? Is it possible to be a feminist and still actively seek out heterosexual relationships? What is the relationship between capitalism and oppression? Is there still a place for a magazine such as Cosmopolitan in a feminist world? Is there anything of redeeming value in the post-Brown manifestation of the magazine?
There is a place to critique Helen Gurley-Brown, but there is also room to praise her. I, personally, feel I owe her a great debt. As a child of the eighties, I grew up with Cosmopolitan and similar magazines, before the explosion of blogs and other media sources on the internet. If I could not read and understand them until I was older, I still saw them, internalized them, and knew that my own burgeoning interest in sex was not something of which to be ashamed. Thank you for that, Ms. Brown, and rest in peace.
Written by Jess Mary Aloe.
Follow her on Twitter!