I’ve read some eulogies of Helen Gurley Brown in the last few days that would lead you to believe she was a mid-century Marianne, leading the feminist charge into an enlightened age. To give her her due, I think she was a very smart (business)woman who had her finger on the pulse of looming and broad cultural changes, and managed to co-opt some Second Wave feminist ideals into a form that popular culture could run with, and she and commercial interests could profit from. “Having It All?” Yeah, that was HGB.
On the plus side, she embraced the word feminism and was a strong voice in mass media of the 1960’s and 70’s for women having careers and financial independence rather than being wholly financially dependent on men, which until well into the 1970’s was a radical notion to many. She never stopped touting the value of hard work to get ahead. And of course, she was known as an advocate for greater sexual freedom for women. But included in that package was an unquestioning fealty to conventional attractiveness (and sparing no effort to achieve it) and to pleasing men in the bedroom and boardroom. One the one hand, she encouraged women to take charge of their lives and not be passive victims of circumstance, but on the other she never acknowledged any of the societal “isms” (sexism, racism, ageism, lookism) that women would have to battle, let alone voicing any call to change them. “Having it all” meant having to be it all and do it all, heaping yet more layers of expectation onto women. It was all about women changing themselves and not the culture. But she was a product of her time and place, as we all are.
I think Kim France at Girls of a Certain Age has written probably the most clear-eyed recap I’ve read about the impact (positive and negative) of Helen Gurley Brown. I don’t have the perspective of being in the publishing industry, where her footprint is probably largest; Kim does.
(For those who may not recognize the name, Helen Gurley Brown was the author of bestselling “Sex and the Single Girl” in 1962, and editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine from 1965 to 1997. She also authored a self-help book called “Having It All” originally published in 1982.)
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