Let Me Say This About That: Helen Gurley Brown

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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12 Responses

  1. Susan
    | Reply

    I agree with your assessment. I want to add one other comment. Helen Gurley Brown wrote a book titled The Late Show for women over 50. In it, she bemoaned the lack of sex for single women over 60. She advised looking around at the husbands of your friends and using one of them for a romp or two in bed. As the “victim” of a single family friend who “used” my husband (and yes, is/was equally culpable) for such a romp, you can imagine I am not a big fan of Mrs. Brown.

  2. Lena
    | Reply

    I’ve always been conflicted about Helen Gurley Brown. While she called herself a feminist, she always seemed a bit too close to being a female Hugh Hefner to me. While both HGB and HH are often credited with “liberating” society’s thinking about sex, male/female relationships, and gender roles, I think the titillation that both used in their magazines to make their points seemed too often to reinforce the stereotypes rather than liberate us from them. I’ve always seen both HGB and HH as shrewd and canny businesspeople who understand how to sell their magazines and themselves to the public.

  3. A Well Styled Life
    | Reply

    Kim’s recap was great. Thanks, again, for pointing me to an interesting blog!!

  4. Tabitha
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    I’ve been writing about her this week, in my mind she was fearless ballsy and helped change the world for women.

  5. Susan Partlan
    | Reply

    Whenever I think of HGB I can’t help thinking of Nora Ephron’s piece Helen Gurley Brown Only Wants to Help:

    http://audrawilliams.tumblr.com/post/29354506842/helen-gurley-brown-only-wants-to-help-nora-ephron

    • Terri
      | Reply

      Susan–thank you for the link to this.

  6. BigLittleWolf
    | Reply

    Ah, that innocent “Having It All” concept that we so blithely and naively bought into in the 70s and 80s, many of us before having children (and realizing what that truly meant), much less encountering the glass ceiling or anything close… It is indeed the “doing it all” that will do us in, and I daresay would do the men in as well, except their expectations of succeeding in so many domains lets them off the hook in some ways…

    You’re quite right that HGB nonetheless offered up the Attractiveness Target of the Times, and yet, she was a pioneer for many of us in important ways.

    Wonderful post; will read the linked tributes.

  7. Terri
    | Reply

    I was never a big reader of her magazine and went quite a few rounds with my teenaged daughters over having the magazine in the house, but I DO think that in some ways she taught women to OWN their sexual desires…and that was new.

  8. blackdogramona
    | Reply

    I bring home the bacon – and cook it up in a pan! Whatever song that was from, it does sum up HGB. What I remember most is her obsession with thinness as a prerequisite to deserve sex, at a time when I was having body and men issues. Not a great influence for me at that time.

  9. blackdogramona
    | Reply

    I bring home the bacon – and cook it up in a pan! Whatever song that was from, it does sum up HGB. What I remember most is her obsession with thinness as a prerequisite to deserve sex, at a time when I was having body and men issues. Not a great influence for me at that time.

  10. California Girl
    | Reply

    I came of “age ” during the 1970s Women’s Movement and I never understood Cosmo or HGB. She seemed the antithesis of everything the movement wanted to achieve. I always thought she was about “T & A” & that did not sig well with me. I actually thought it was because she wasn’t pretty and flat-chested. I still think Cosmo holds women back.

    Excellent analysis youve posted.

  11. Shelley
    | Reply

    I’m a fan of HGB, no question. I’ve no doubt that she helped me envision having a life different to the one I might otherwise have had. I always had the impression that ‘sex sells’ and she knew it and used it to get the other message across: don’t live your life through a man, get your own money, want more than 1960s men would have you want, work hard and dream! She said the same things my mother was saying, but at a time I was rebelling and couldn’t hear Mom very well. I’m a fan of HGB.

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