Helen Gurley Brown May Not Have Been a 'Serious' Feminist But She Empowers Women to This Day
Helen Gurley Brown would be loving the tributes she's been receiving since she passed away at 90 on Aug. 13. She's getting the recognition she deserves as a visionary female leader who empowered young women to escape the straitjacket of non-opportunity.
That straitjacket was the norm when Helen was growing up and trying to spread her wings in the America of the 1940s and "50s. Young women were expected to go from high school into marriage and baby production and to put their husbands' needs first. If they had any yearnings for college and then a career, they had to often fight both the attitudes of their own family as well as admissions officers. Then, they were usually limited to three professions: teacher, nurse or secretary.
That's what Helen faced as she sought to support herself, her mother and sister. But that was only the half of it.
When it came to romance, women were either good girls or, God forbid, bad girls. If you were a good girl with any hope of marriage, then you had better keep your legs closed and not even entertain the idea of a sex life.
I know that all this is true. Helen told me about it and wrote about the world she faced, and my own mother echoed her words. To be a woman, before the Age of Cosmopolitan and the dawning of the feminist era, was to be a second-class citizen.
But in reality, Feminists with a capital F hated that Helen and her Cosmo celebrated female sexuality along with feminine intelligence. They didn't see that women are multifaceted and can want to be stylish, have great hair, stupendous orgasms AND be career achievers. Helen understood that , and told women they could do it. Plus , she gave them advice every step of the way.
Now, you have to ask, whose feminism was more realistic and has had the greater impact on women today? Was it the serious feminists or Helen Gurley Brown?
Cosmopolitan was read by tens of millions of young women over several generations, shaping their attitudes toward work, play and relationships.
The magazine also spawned multiple women's magazine imitators, such as New Woman and Cleo, and it influenced the approach of other women's magazines. It opened the door to the discussion of once-forbidden sexual issues and concerns in titles from Glamour to Redbook and Women's Health to Oprah. Plus , can we forget talk radio with Dr. Ruth ?
It wasn't just the words that influenced generations. How about Helen's visual representation of confident women in lingerie and boudoir wear? If there were no Cosmo, would there be Victoria's Secret Angels today? Would Kim Kardashian be tweeting photos of herself in bikinis? Would Sports Illustrated have a swimsuit issue? They are all ways of women confidently expressing their beauty.
And say what you will about Cosmo's emphasis on relationship and sexual issues: Almost 50 years after Helen took charge, women now outnumber men in college and many professional schools. Women are leaders in many professions and are gradually cracking the ranks of the CEOs. Young women today feel they can choose how they want to live their lives, even if they find themselves stressfully torn between their work demands and their family responsibilities. At least that 's far better stress than being straitjacketed because you have no options at all.
Helen may not have been the poster girl for female empowerment, but the reality is that she both inspired and schooled her readers in living empowered lives. So what if they are wearing Victoria's Secret bras!