Helen Gurley Brown’s complicated feminist legacy

Story highlights

Longtime Cosmos editor called herself a feminist but encouraged women to be sex objects

Sexual liberation is just one part of feminism, activists say

Criticism tends to stem from her emphasis on physical attractiveness over independence

"She was trying to do two things at once, and she did pretty well," feminist activist says

CNN  — 

Longtime Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown was a self-described “devout feminist” who paradoxically preached that “if you’re not a sex object, you’re in trouble.” Another of her famous quips had it that “good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere.”

Since her death Monday at age 90, how the original “Cosmo girl’s” contrasting ideas became manifest in the pages of her iconic magazine has stirred debate over whether she left the world a better place for women.

On the one hand, she was an independent, powerful woman in publishing who talked frankly about sex and encouraged women not to see the act as shameful, said Jennifer Pozner, director of Women in Media & News. On the other hand, she created “one of the most body-shaming, insecurity-provoking, long-lasting sexist media products of the last 100 years.”

Sex and the single girl in pop culture

These seemingly conflicted ideologies were also reflected in her own life in which she shed her Depression-era Arkansas roots and built herself into the leader of a global brand celebrating the “fun fearless female.” Yet throughout her 32-year reign as Cosmo’s editor-in-chief she was faithfully married to the same man and reportedly indulged in few vices except plastic surgery.

Some CNN.com readers saw her passing as a moment to thank her for “leading the way for so many of us” and “being so outspoken when speaking up was not a lady-like thing to do,” as one reader noted in the comments section of her obituary.

Others, however, seized the opportunity to blame her for promoting “a lifestyle that has eroded the American family and led to countless personal tragedies for women having casual sexual relationships that led to unwanted pregnancies and STDs.”

Though her legacy is likely to be debated for years to come, as The New York Times noted in its front page obituary, in the meantime it’s safe to say “she was a Janus-headed figure in women’s history, simultaneously progressive and retrogressive in her approach to women’s social roles.”

And it’s hard to lay all the blame for society’s conflicted sexual mores at her feet without taking into account men’s magazines such as Penthouse and Hustler, another CNN.com commenter said. After all, women aren’t having sex alone.

“It’s just plain sexism that people like Helen Gurley Brown are targeted as the cause of promiscuous sex, but promiscuous sex is not happening in a vacuum,” said Jessica Wakeman, a writer for women’s pop culture blog The Frisky and a Cosmo reader. “I don’t think it’s fair that she’ll be painted as pied piper of promiscuous sex because she just happened to be mouthpiece for a sexual revolution that was already under way.

“She’s just one part of an entire culture revolution that happened in the 1960s and 1970s,” Wakeman said. “In a sense, she was trying to dismantle the problem of reigning sexual mores of her time, but she was trying to do so playing by the rules.”

Much of the dissonance has to do with the era in which she burst on the scene in the early 1960s, when Cosmo more closely resembled “Good Housekeeping” and suburban housewives in the mold of June Cleaver were its target audience.

At 40, Gurley Brown made her first brash entree into the public consciousness as the author of 1962’s “Sex and the Single Girl,” recounting her randy bachelorette days as a blueprint for women to use their feminine wiles to look good, have fun and get a man. Three years later, she became editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan and swapped out the aproned housewife on the cover with a sassy single lady in a plunging neckline. Casserole recipes were replaced with tips for pleasing your man, which would become the magazine’s undisputed lasting contribution to society to this day.

“She was trying to do two things at once, and she did pretty well,” political psychologist and women’s issues expert Martha Burk said. “We were not past the traditional roles of women at that time – to be attractive, settle down and not have a career – so she put it all in one package and it was pretty hard to dissect.”

Dr. Ruth: Brown told women the truth about sex

Criticism tends to stem from her emphasis on physical attractiveness over independence. But for the independent career woman, she was a role model who made a name for herself and built that empire with her own strength.

“She did it in a time when it wasn’t all that usual. Nowadays, we take it for granted,” said Burk, author of “Your Voice, Your Vote: The Savvy Woman’s Guide to Power, Politics, and the Change We Need.”

“She was a feminist before people really understood that what she was trying to do was part of women’s liberation overall.”

Gurley Brown was a product of her own reinvention from a “mouseburger” into the subject of “Sex and the Single Girl,” unapologetically working and sleeping her way out of the steno pool and into an advertising career. But by the time she arrived at Cosmo, she was married to film producer David Brown, who would remain her husband until his death in 2010. During their marriage, Brown was a partner behind many of Gurley Brown’s projects, even writing Cosmo cover lines. according to the Hearst Corporation. He persuaded her to write a book about her life as a single woman that became “Sex and the Single Girl.”

When her last book, “I’m Wild Again,” came out in 2000, Slate’s David Plotz noted that it was the autobiography of a “puritan” who exercised obsessively, didn’t drink, smoke or eat, was devoted to her husband and lived for her job.

“This Cosmo girl’s dirty little secret isn’t sex: It’s work,” Plotz wrote.

By introducing frank discussion of sex and relationships into the national conversation through Cosmo’s pages, she gave women permission to enjoy sex before marriage, which was controversial for its time (and still is today, in some circles), and to feel empowered to chart their own course. But sexual liberation was just a small part of the bigger social movement agitating for women’s independence and equality, also known as feminism.

“Feminism concentrated on something different, but what she talked about was something nobody ever talked about and a lot of people thought it was frivolous and naughty, but a lot of good came from it, too,” Burk said.

Feminism as we think of it today did not actually flower until the 1970s, spinning out of larger social movements. Starting in the 1960s, Gurley Brown achieved a form of liberation that did not fall in the same category as the civil rights movement or feminism as it later manifested.

“People thought that if women had sexual liberation, everything else would follow,” said feminist activist Gloria Feldt, author of “No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power.

“Today, the context is more sophisticated. It’s truly more important for women to have economic and political power, and sexual liberty does not necessarily lead to either of those. Plus, there are negative consequences to sexuality without limits; herpes and AIDS taught us that,” she said.

“I think there’s a lot of good in what Helen Gurley Brown did. I just don’t think it’s the complete story.”

And while “how to blow his mind in bed” might be common Cosmo fodder, so are Kegel exercises, masturbation techniques and do-it-yourself fashion looks.

“You have to take it with grain of salt. It’s not a radical feminist magazine,” said Wakeman, who has written for Cosmo and admits to reading it each month.

“I don’t think Cosmo should be seen as a bible for women. It’s just one resource of many for women. Take what you want to take from it and leave the rest.”

What’s your take on Helen Gurley Brown’s feminist legacy? Share your opinion in the comments section below.