[30 July 2009]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Helen Gurley Brown is one of the most fascinating women of the last century. Not only was she the editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine for 32 fabulous years, but she is an excellent example of the self-made success story, rising from humble beginnings in Arkansas, to excel at copywriting, then author the 1962 bestselling book Sex and the Single Girl before taking the reins and turning a failing women’s magazine into a veritable institution in the publishing world.
In Bad Girls Go Everywhere: The Life of Helen Gurly Brown, author, and professor of women’s studies, Jennifer Scanlon proposes that Helen Gurley Brown is not only a brilliant writer and a shrewd, successful businesswoman, but a pioneering, progressive feminist. This goes against much of the public opinion of the ‘60s and ‘70s, when Cosmo and the views of its outspoken editor were vilified for championing sex—and advising woman on how to use it to get ahead in their careers—alongside the more accepted feminist aims of equality in the workforce. Though she obviously knew that woman were equally capable and deserved equal pay for equal work, Helen Gurley Brown also believed because men earned more than women, that they should always pick up the check, that they were obligated to give woman expensive gifts, and that sex could be exchanged for material goods on a mutually agreeable basis.
Quite a radical philosophy in the era of radical feminism, but Scanlon effectively argues that is precisely why Brown deserves mention in the same breath as Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan. But Bad Girls Go Everywhere isn’t all gender studies and debate. Relevant bits of historical, and often hysterical, trivia are woven into truly fascinating anecdotes, episodes and personal facts about Helen Gurley Brown’s life, loves and longevity. She didn’t marry until age 37, which was not only unusual for women in American society at the time, but was also seen as something of a mental defect. Scanlon quotes a collection of essays from 1949 called Why Are You Single?, which attribute a single woman’s unmarried status to such mental illnesses as coitophobia (the fear of sex), some sort of a morbid dread, or at least an extreme dislike of housekeeping.
As a modern 37-year-old single woman, I can personally attest to just how wrong these ridiculous assumptions were (except maybe the housekeeping part, but that hardly qualifies unless laziness is considered a mental illness!). But it’s because of Helen Gurly Brown and her strength of character and singular vision for her own life that myself and other 21st century woman take for granted our independence and ability to each freely express our individuality—and unapologetic sexuality—in society and our careers as well as our personal lives.
Helen Gurley Brown is, these days, often called the original Carrie Bradshaw, with Sex and the Single Girl and Cosmopolitan cited as obvious inspirations for Sex and the City. However, as Bad Girls Go Everywhere: The Life of Helen Gurly Brown clearly shows, Helen Gurley Brown did much more than simply inspire the modern, independent, career-minded, sexually-impenitent single woman. She invented her! She is her.