Monday, 6 March 2017

International Women's Day: the Helen Gurley Brown effect

It's International Women's Day this week (March 8th) and I thought I'd mark the occasion by commemorating a woman who changed modern culture. You may or may not have heard of Helen Gurley Brown, but her impact on Western women's attitudes to sex, careers and relationships is immeasurable. She helped create a change in women's lives for the better which led to lifestyles many of us can now take for granted.

To fully understand Brown's effect on modern culture you must first try to imagine how life was for women up to the early 1960's. This was a time before the feminist movement had taken hold and women in the UK had only gained the right to vote a few decades earlier. Life for many women was expected to follow a particular and limited course; marry in her early twenties (or late teens) and begin a family which she would then dedicate her entire existence to. Being a wife and mother were a woman's main duties. To somehow avert these fates was often seen as failure or a waste or to be pitied.

However by the early 1960's strict social attitudes towards gender were beginning to broaden. The Kinsey Report of Sexual Behavior in the Human Female from 1953 had already caused ripples of shock by just talking about women's sex lives beyond marriage, a thing never before done on a public scale. While the new phenomena that was Playboy Magazine, championed the idea that women enjoyed sex as much as men, again unheard of in a world that valued women's virginal (unmarried|) or maternal (married) state but never the idea of her actually having sex outside of these two polar ideals. Women who had sex for anything but procreation were still generally seen as fast, loose and social pariahs. To confuse the status quo even more, a new method of contraception was introduced with the coming of the 60's and 'the pill' offered a new sense of freedom for women wishing to avoid pregnancy.

When thinking of the figureheads of the feminist movement which naturally evolved alongside and aided by these cultural shifts, it's easy to think of influential women like Gloria Steinem or Betty Freidan whose journalistic and literary works stand out as seriously empowering women's voices. Yet another woman was making her mark in an altogether different way with no less impact. 


Helen Gurley Brown caused an international sensation when she released her book 'Sex and the Single Girl' in 1962. This highly accessible book was written in the style of one girlfriend talking to another. It did away with the cold sterile scientific language of earlier books on the subject of S.E.X and introduced the idea that women not only had sex outside of marriage but they enjoyed it and actively went in search of it. Brown, by then a married woman herself had done the unthinkable and published a book detailing her own (mis)adventures as a single woman spanning almost 20 years and over 100 lovers.
 The fallout from this was huge. Overnight Helen Gurley Brown became a household name for all the wrong reasons. She became 'that woman'. It's fun to witness Brown's guest slots on a myriad of TV and radio shows during the 60's (you can find many on youtube). Always introduced as 'the author of 'Sex and the Single Girl'' her shameful notoriety went before her and audiences were deliciously shocked by her unique opinions. On one of her many appearances on the chain smoking confrontational host Joe Pyne's show she was called a 'terrible woman' for writing about how to have affairs with married men. Yet despite the public's moral outrage Brown never became flustered during these PR outings and kept her feminine charming composure at all times. 

In fact the HGB brand was a big seller all round. Her debut book inspired a film of the same name starring Natalie Wood and spawned book sequels, 'Sex and the Office' and the 'Outrageous Opinions of Helen Gurley Brown'. It's important to note that in tandem to Brown's ideas about sex she talked about her career and in turn the notion of women like herself, working and succeeding in the work place. When 'Sex and the Single Girl' was published HGB was one of the USA's highest paid advert copywriters, and she'd worked her way up there from nothing. This was in an era when women's roles were still very marginalised for the majority, and women with a career beyond their families were virtually non existent.

It was while touting a new idea for a magazine aimed at the HGB audience that Hearst Publishing decided to give Brown the opportunity that led to her second life changing career move. Rather than risk a whole lot of money on a new publication that might not take off, in 1965 Hearst gave her the role of editor in chief for their then floundering magazine, Cosmopolitan. The rest as they say is history.

Brown took the safe women's journal that up to that time had spoken about how to be the best housewife with quaint little tips for cooking and home making and replaced it with the HGB vision. She wanted to talk to women who had lived like her, working hard to make their own way whilst making their own decisions regarding relationships. She made it normal for women to talk about sex and own their sexuality. Yes, these women still wanted to get married and still wanted children (it was still the 60's after all) but they had interests that also reached beyond these traditional values. Cosmopolitan now ran articles like 'Why can't a woman be like a man?' and 'Is there life after marriage?'. In 1966 one issue ran with the spookily prophetic 'Dating by computer. Actual experiences of four career girls'

Helen Gurley Brown revolutionised the women's magazine industry making Cosmopolitan the most successful of it's kind, so popular it branched out into Europe and countries like Russia that were way behind in the sexual cultural shift. There is no doubt Brown's input helped to open the eyes of millions of women around the globe encouraging them to see beyond the narrow options that were laid out for them.

Despite her reach and obvious impact Brown was never fully accepted by the feminist cause. She was (and debatably still is) snubbed and sometimes ridiculed by the feminists of the day for her too feminine and literally 'girly' outlook. Perhaps because as she was telling women they could be sexual and successful she was also telling them to be beautiful and liked.

The HGB brand can certainly be criticised for promoting unrealistic ideals of beauty by creating the 'Cosmopolitan Girl' who graced each cover with her huge hair and perky cleavage. Brown cashed in on the ideal of a girl who not only lives life to the full but looks like a model while doing it. The thing is, the ideal sold.

While we can see the symbiotic impact that women's magazines still hold today, on one hand telling women they are empowered and on the other insinuating they aren't pretty or thin enough (that is a whole other blog post!), it's impossible to not give Helen Gurley Brown her due in changing women's attitudes to sex and working life for the better. If she hadn't been the first to take the idea and run with it we might never have seen other women embrace their potential and break down similar barriers.

In popular culture we might never have had Alexis Colby throwing her weight around in Dynasty, or Carrie Bradshaw and her friends exploring Sex and the City or in turn the likes of Lena Dunham writing and starring in Girls. Each incarnation is a product of it's time and open to comment but each also is a powerful platform talking about sex and success to women, and that would never have happened without HGB's influence.

Cosmo gently let Brown 'retire' from the editor in chief post after 32 years at the helm. Instead she took the title of International Editor for all 59 international editions of the magazine whilst in her 70's. She died aged 90 in 2012 leaving a lasting legacy. If you buy an issue of Cosmo, to this day on the staff listings page, you will find the words 'Editor in chief, Cosmopolitan (1965-1997) Helen Gurley Brown.


I purposely haven't mentioned anything about Brown's personal background, her difficult family situation, small town upbringing or the many jobs and love affairs she had while struggling to manage her life. She was obsessed with her weight (while being stacked like a rake), a huge fan of plastic surgery and a workaholic. She was a very eccentric woman, definitely flawed but fascinating and highly influential. To find out more I'd recommend the book Not Pretty Enough: The Unlikely Triumph of Helen Gurley Brown by Gerri Hirshey and also the many videos which can be found on youtube which cover her rise to celebrity in the 1960's through to her old age in the 2010's. She made many guest appearances on TV shows both trivial and intellectual but her message is consistently clear and delivered with a beguiling shake of the head and a smile, it's hard not to become seduced by her.

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