While reflecting on our anniversary, we were reminded of how many women have come before us, paving the way for straightforward conversations about women’s sexuality. This is the fourth in a series (read the first, second, and third) launching our sixth year with gratitude!
Helen Gurley grew up in the Ozarks, “ordinary, hillbilly, and poor,” but determined not to stay that way. When she was 10, her father died in an elevator accident. Her mother struggled for years to provide for her two daughters, then moved the family to Los Angeles in hopes of getting help from a relative. Helen Gurley, the valedictorian of her high school class, learned to type. She said she went through 17 secretarial jobs before a boss finally promoted her: to advertising copywriter. She never looked back.
She was a highly successful career woman but chafed at remaining unmarried well into her 30s, so she plotted to snare the movie producer David Brown (later known for The Sting, Jaws, and Driving Miss Daisy). Among her wiles: she put her phone in the fridge so she wouldn’t hear it ring, making her suitor think she was out with some other man. They stayed married for more than 50 years, until he died at the age of 93. She had told the New York Times, “I look after him like a geisha girl.”
When Helen Gurley Brown published Sex and the Single Girl in 1962, she was 40 years old and married; her husband had suggested the subject. She later recalled, “Before I wrote my book, the thought was that sex was for men and women only caved in to please men. But I wrote what I knew to be true—that sex is pleasurable for both women and men.”
The book’s notoriety led to her becoming the editor of Cosmopolitan. Her first cover, in the summer of 1965, featured ample cleavage, pouting pink lips, and heavily made-up eyes. She was aiming for the “grown-up girl, interested in whatever can give you a richer, more exciting, fun-filled, friend-filled, man-loved kind of life!” Her underlings were told, “no glums, no dour feminist anger and no motherhood.” She remained the editor of Cosmopolitan for 32 years. She claimed that her husband wrote the cover lines.
Helen Gurley Brown insisted that she was a feminist but others disagreed. One year after Sex and the Single Girl, Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique heralded a new wave of feminism. In 1970 Kate Millett led a sit-in in the Cosmopolitan office. Jennifer Pozner called Cosmopolitan “one of the most body-shaming, insecurity-provoking, long-lasting sexist media products of the last 100 years.”
Helen Gurley Brown died in 2012 at the age of 90. She had suggested that her epitaph say, “She worked very hard.” She claimed never to have taken a day off except for plastic surgery. As Margalit Fox’s obituary slyly put it, “She was 90, though parts of her were considerably younger.”
But Dr. Ruth had a gracious tribute. “What Helen Gurley Brown taught women was how to use their bodies not to give someone else pleasure but to give themselves pleasure, and that is a tremendous contribution for which I thank her on behalf of all the women who are now orgasmic and might never have been without her pioneering efforts.”