During the great second wave of feminism in the sixties and seventies, Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug and Betty Friedan fought for our right to equal pay, access to education and contraception, reproductive freedom, and something more intangible but just as important—the right to personal fulfillment. They helped move women out of the stultifying, circa 1960s domestic sphere and into the wider world. They fought for not only our right to wear pants, but also to wear the pants in our marriages, everyday lives and households.
At the same time, Helen Gurley Brown insisted, loudly and publicly, in her books and on the pages of Cosmopolitan, that we should be able to pursue our personal and professional ambitions while wearing slutty dresses, having fun with makeup, and doing our bosses.
Gurley Brown was a post-feminist before feminism even took hold, an outlier frequently and mistakenly dismissed as a mere reactionary. Her 1962 book Sex and the Single Girl was a massive wake-up call and national bestseller that insisted that single women were not only not losers or spinsters (which they had been largely viewed as until then), but glamorous emblems of contemporary femininity, as modern, revolutionary and important as the space program. It preceded the publication of Betty Friedan’s monumentally serious and important The Feminine Mystique by a year—because Helen Gurley Brown was ahead of everyone, including herself. Like bookends of the women’s movement, the two books epitomized ways of being feminine, and of thinking of femininity. Was it something oppressive and sinister, imposed from the top down by The Man? Or was it a frock to worn lightly and with great pleasure, perhaps even subversively? On the one hand was Friedan’s allegedly “humorless” characterization of women as victims of false consciousness, duped into unfulfilling suburban lives that drove them mad—a kind of dark, double X Cheeverism—and on the other was Gurley Brown’s frothy, playful Single Gal, who embraced her inner girl and encompassed feminine archtypes from Mary Richards to the fembot-y, decadently sexual Scavullo models who later appeared on Cosmo’s covers. Oh, and she also had a job.
Helen Gurley Brown was a lot like Gloria Steinem—when she went undercover as a Playboy Bunny. Steinem was a glamorous, ravishingly beautiful mouthpiece for feminism, an intellectual with racehorse legs; Gurley Brown was a self described “former mouseburger” who transformed herself into a killer editor, retooling an entire publication and upping its circulation from 800,000 to nearly three million, according to Gurley Brown’s New York Times obituary, all while pretending to simper and serve like a geisha. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, she mentored dozens of female writers and reporters, hit her deadlines, and helped pave the way for the uber-driven female mega-editors who followed (Tina Brown, Bonnie Fuller and Anna Wintour among them).
In 1970, a group of feminists including Kate Millet famously staged a sit-in at the offices of Cosmopolitan. They objected to what they saw as the publication’s—and Gurley Brown’s—antediluvian gender politics. What they did not understand was that Gurley Brown’s vision of women conquering the world one fu*k at a time was arguably as progressive and potent as the ERA—and a whole lot more titillating and media savvy. By insisting that femininity was power and sex was fun, Gurley Brown proposed a vision that vexed sexists and feminists alike. Her view that women could and should “have it all”—including having sex when they wanted, with whom they wanted, professional success, singledom without judgment and child-free marriages if they chose— all while acting servile and “feminine” if it served an end, could make her sound strangely out of touch, and like an uncanny clairvoyant. Her legacy is that she continues to incite and confound and prove, in entirely unexpected ways, that the personal is political.