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Sex and the Single Girl: Helen Gurley Brown's Feminist Legacy

Posted by Ryan Morgan on August 14, 2012 at 12:00 PM

"HGB might not seem like the ideal feminist icon to some, but she GETS IT, she really gets it."

Helen Gurley Brown, legendary Cosmopolitan magazine editor and self-made-woman, died this week at the age of 90. As a former 17-year-old Cosmopolitan subscriber (yikes!) and a current passionate feminist activist, I want to share some thoughts and drop some knowledge on y’all about HGB (Helen Gurley Brown), Cosmopolitan magazine, and sex-positivity and the single girl in 2012.

HGB grew up in a poor family in Arkansas and struggled as a young woman to take care of her mother and sister. After a string of secretarial jobs she became an advertising copywriter--like Peggy from Mad Men--and worked her way up. Her career skyrocketed after the publication of her highly successful and controversial book Sex and the Single Girl in 1969. Her publishing success led to her being named editor of the then-languishing Hearst magazine Cosmopolitan in 1965, a position she held until 1997.

Cosmopolitan magazine is, in 2012, the epitome of the watered-down, pink-washed, “Girl Power!” version of feminism-lite that makes me absolutely bonkers. There are articles on “75 Ways to Pleasure Your Man,” “27 Sexy Things to Do in a Bikini,” and “How to Make Sure Your Bedroom Doesn’t Scare Him Away,” which reinforce the idea that you should dedicate your life to making sure men think you’re hot and sexy ABOVE ALL THINGS. Words and phrases like “hottie,” “moan-zone,” and “make him sizzle” are used constantly, and turn the reality of women’s sexual pleasure into a cutesy, approachable code-language. (Not that I think being creative with the language of sexual pleasure is bad in general- it’s the almost twee, cutesy tone of their copy that is worrisome.)

There are times when Cosmo seems like a parody of itself. The Onion, a “fake news” comedy media outlet, did a FANTASTIC job of spoofing the lady mag’s insistence that a woman MUST PLEASE HER MAN a few years back. [WARNING: video clip includes a couple adult words]

However, HGB’s leadership of Cosmo produced some amazing, paradigm-exploding, sex-positive feminist work.

She had revolutionary and healthy messages for women in a world that forced them to define themselves by their relationships with men (specifically a matrimonial relationship). Fundamentally, Cosmo’s messages were of self-improvement and empowerment and pronounced that:

1) Women didn’t have to be married to be happy or successful and

2) Women didn’t have to be married in order to have or enjoy sex.

HGB worked her tail off, and single-handedly turned a failing magazine into a cultural phenomenon and a financial success. In fact, her first issue was wildly successful due (in large part) to an article on The Pill! In the summer of 1965, The Pill was still new and hadn’t really been written about before. HGB knew how important it was that women had the ability to control their own fertility—and that women craved information about this new contraceptive innovation. In an interview about that first issue she said, “To me, the most important thing about it was that if you weren’t worried about getting pregnant, you could enjoy yourself more in bed.”

“I knew that women were having sex and loving it,” she said. “I wanted my magazine to be their best friend, a platform from which I could tell them what I’d learned and talk about all the things that hadn’t been discussed before. I wanted to tell the truth: that sex is one of the three best things out there, and I don’t even know what the other two are.”

In fact, HGB was full of fantastic quotes—her Vanity Fair Proust Questionnaire is lovely. And this 1996 interview with CNN about how she is a “devout feminist” just makes me fall in love with her.

HGB might not seem like the ideal feminist icon to some, but she GETS IT, she really gets it.

Although some of her once-revolutionary, healthy and empowering messages to women have been appropriated and used for evil instead of good, I think Helen Gurley Brown should be remembered and revered for her feminist efforts to make the world a safer place for women to express their sexuality.

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