My 20-year-old daughter has never heard of her...Was Helen Gurley Brown a feminist?

My 20-year-old daughter has never heard of her... I was 4 years-old when her book was published.

Was Helen Gurley Brown a feminist?

Helen Gurley Brown, the former editor of Cosmopolitan magazine for 32 years, died on Monday at the age of 90. Long before the creation of HBO’s "Sex and the City," there was Brown’s 1962 "Sex and the Single Girl." Before there was the fictional shoe-obsessed Carrie Bradshaw, there was Helen Gurley Brown who often wore fishnet stockings and big jewelry. . Brown is credited with leading the way for women to talk openly about sex.  Yet Brown and Cosmo didn't please some feminists including one of my friends who just wrote to me on my Chica Peeps Facebook page ( that, “Her entire raison d'être was defining womanhood in terms of getting approval from a man. Sexuality is not the only thing women have to offer!”

I don't think it's fair to judge Helen Gurley Brown without considering the historical context. Women had few options when Helen came along. She was a feminist for her time in the 1960's when working women and birth control were controversial. It wasn’t until 1963 that the “Pill” was approved by the FDA and gave women reproductive control and freedom. Brown promoted the ideas that women could enjoy sex without marriage (just like men!) and that women should enjoy the same benefits of work and career as men.This may be a perverse memory, but I recall it very clearly. My brother and I must have been about five and seven and we had friends over to play.  Our mother did some sort of reverse setting on the vacuum cleaner and gave us, what I now know were, condoms to blow up and float around the living room.  Was this her expression of reproductive freedom?  Batting huge (and they were huge!) white cylindrical balloons around the house with her children. She certainly didn’t go out and buy a box of Trojans for us to inflate.  No doubt they came from her nightstand and were no longer necessary with the advent of the Pill. I also remember when my mother was finally allowed to wear a pants suit over her pantyhose (eww!) to her part-time job and how shockingly radical that was.

Today, over half of all college degrees are awarded to women. We have shattered the glass ceiling in some industries (but nowhere near enough!). The United States sent an Olympic team to London that consisted of more women athletes than men, and the majority of gold medals earned were won by women.

What is a feminist anyway? I’m one, if this is the definition: I should be free to dictate the course of my life and not allow any authority over my choices, other than my own conscience.

I think one of Gurley’s own quotations contradicts what we think we know about her:

“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 other night, my daughter and I watched one of the early “Mad Men” episodes on NetFlix. Set in the 1960’s at a fictional advertising agency on Madison Avenue, it was shocking to see people smoking in the office and indulging in boozy office parties. My daughter was just as shocked at the way the pointy-boobed and girdled women in the office, all secretaries, were treated - little slaps on the fanny, “Get me a cup of coffee, honey,” “Her collar and cuffs don’t match,” “my girl will set up an appointment” – these were all eye-openers to her.  Thankfully, she has grown up in a different world and if Helen Gurley Brown played even a minor role in helping to open those doors, then she is indeed, a feminist.


I blog at 'Peep Into My Life'


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