Helen Gurley Brown, 1922-2012

The NYT obituary and the Salon obituary both give, in their different ways, good overviews of the work of the author of Sex and the Single Girl and the longtime editor of Cosmopolitan magazine.

It’s funny that just today, I was criticizing Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article in the Atlantic, for her statement that feminist are “simply airbrushing reality” by “glibly repeating ‘you can have
it all.’” I was snippily saying that I’ve never heard a feminist glibly say life would involve no tough choices or sacrifices, or that life was (some oddly capitalist-sounding) paradise in which we can have everything we want.

Then I read this in the Salon obit: “Her magazine prattled about the joys of women doing and having it all.”  And I recognized how right this was, having read my fair share of issues of Cosmo.  I find this fascinating, since it cleary indicates the source of that irksome but culturally pervasive view that feminists say something so glib and transparently false.  I could simply reassert my rightness and say, well, Helen Gurley Brown wasn’t really a feminist, then.  But there are sundry problems with being the Border Police for feminism, aren’t there!  The more one reads about her, the harder it is to say that this androcentric, femininity-enforcing culturata was in no way feminist.  For she was also proudly affirming of sexuality as something good and fun rather than merely shameful or wicked. She asserted that women were excellent additions to the workforce at professional levels.  She is not easily dismissed.  We should be so lucky to have someone say the same of us.

6 thoughts on “Helen Gurley Brown, 1922-2012

  1. Cosmopolitan is a source of sexual empowerment for women? Gloria Steinem once called it a tool kit for unliberated women, and (from what I can see on the cover pages of magazine at the grocery store checkout, anyway), I don’t see that it’s changed much. All of the articles seem to be about how to please men sexually in order to gain financial favors. That’s as old as dirt.

  2. Yeah, ’empowerment’ is too charitable, you’re right. Then again, there’s that bit in the NYT: “But in an era in which an unmarried woman was called an old maid at 23, the new Cosmopolitan gave readers license not to settle for settling down with just anyone, and to enjoy the search with blissful abandon for however long it took. Sex as an end in itself was perfectly fine, the magazine assured them.” And Salon suggests it was the first women’s mag to bluntly talk about women having sex.

    But so man-centric, so … I mean, heteronormative is too mild a word.

  3. I have really mixed views about Cosmo. I mean, in one sense, it’s totally horrific. Not just the heteronormative, androcentric approach to sex, but the approach to fashion too. Where attire is not an artistic form of self-expression, but an integral factor to self-worth, and quite literally a basis for ridicule if not done properly (at least, if you’re a celebrity). Painting your face is apparently just another required aspect of a woman’s standard hygiene regimen if you believe what you read from them. Not to mention PhotoShop!

    At the same time though, I do think it has done a lot affirm the acceptability of women’s sexual expression. Obviously I’d like it if it weren’t done in a way that simultaneously reaffirms a patriarchal social structure, but I think it’s incredibly important for women to have some source of affirmation that sexuality is good. I think, even now, there’s still a lot of that “he’s a stud/she’s a slut” double standard. There are lots of things I despise about it, but I also think it’s proved to be a really valuable resource for women.

  4. What I see in all of these debate around Helen Gurley Brown’s status as a “feminist” is an uncomfortable lack of awareness around social class and the structuring role it plays in relation to our other identities (as women, as being white, or black, or latina, as it relates to our sexual orientation, etc.). HGB, for me, demonstrates how different women have different access to the idealized form of “a feminist woman”. This is about money, to be sure, but it’s also about all the other insidious ways that social class works – education level, and closely tied to that access to social circles where common “cultural practice” involves critiquing models of heteronormativity or analyzing for androcentric bias. Not all women have these experiences, and it is a shame when we draw lines and make distinctions based on them without recognizing that our capacity to do this results from a certain level of class privilege. I heard it said yesterday that HGB embodied a “working class” feminism, and while it isn’t my working class feminism (nor do I really have a right to claim a working class feminism anymore, as I’m socially mobile and comfortably situated in the middle class now), I don’t disagree with that statement, and do think it makes a great deal of sense if we consider her actions in historical context and remember her personal circumstances. I find her inspiring, and a great reminder that we need broader ideas of what it means to be “feminist”, and remember to not naturalize class privilege in our definitions of feminism.

  5. Just an idea…and as someone who self-identifies as a feminist I hope not to be attacked here…but as there are so many strands, philosophies, and versions of the feminist ethic and lifestyle, I think that there is a sort of “feminist spectrum” to consider here. Some people fall into more radical categories and some may fall into the more conservative categories. Being a feminist isn’t like being a Catholic, where there is a hard set dogma that you either follow or you don’t. So when someone identifies as a feminist and promotes their set of feminist ideologies, the only judgment to make is whether or not said woman is elevating our gender or not. And, as Rachel says, we must consider her context.

    I will say…I’m proud of our online feminist community for being able to have smart, intelligent conversations in open forums like this. Go us. :)

    PS. I paid homage to Ms. Brown today on my blog as well….#shamelessselfpromotion http://fruitloopfeminism.wordpress.com/2012/08/14/in-the-know-helen-gurley-brown/

  6. Claire, I am working on an essay on feminism about just this, as we speak! I wish to work out some social-philosophical stance regarding when we self-identify and other-identify feminists and non-members of feminism. This is most interesting to me at those junctures when figures like Gurley self-identify and others say she’s not (or not, to them) feminist. I’m less interested, for reasons I’ll have to work out, in times when public figures decline the term and some of us want to apply it (as with Hannah Arendt).

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