14 Aug 2012

Money, power, sex & the woman who told us to enjoy it

Helen Gurley Brown, who has died aged 90, transformed Cosmopolitan from a domestic suburban publication to a sex tips bible – her impact on feminism and women’s magazines remains a hot topic today.

Helen Gurley Brown

When she took over Cosmo in 1965, her mission statement was that the magazine tell its readers “how to get everything out of life – the money, recognition, success, men, prestige, authority, dignity – whatever she is looking at through the glass her nose is pressed against.”

But her message that all women should be having sex – and enjoying it – was undoubtedly what she will be remembered for in years to come. “My own philosophy is if you’re not having sex, you’re finished,” she said.

With magazine stands cluttered with sensational cover lines and sex tips, it is difficult to imagine just how radical the new Cosmo was under Gurley Brown. But at a time when women were considered past their marrying prime at 25, and when the majority stayed at home after settling down with children and husband, she told women they were allowed to set their sights on money, power and sex – and told them how to do it.

Sex and the Single Girl

The name of the much-loved Sex and the City series was a homage to Sex and the Single Girl, Gurley Brown’s 1962 book, based on her life before she met her husband David Brown [pictured below], which was made into a popular film. It extolled the virtues of having a free and easy sex life – and how it could help advance your career.

If anything, she foreshadowed the raunch culture we now inhabit, in which we’re expected to give our boyfriends lap dances or take part in role play scenarios. Basically, it’s all about the man and what he wants. Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, Vagenda

“Carrie and her friends couldn’t have lived the lives they did without Helen,” said Bonnie Fuller, the celebrity editor who succeeded Brown at Cosmopolitan in 1997. “She was the first woman to say you could have it all – and by that she meant a career and a man and a hot sex life. She was a visionary. She created the modern woman.”

From secretary to editor

Born into a relatively working class family in Arkansas, Gurley Brown worked at a series of secretarial jobs before being spotted by her boss at Los Angeles’ Foote, Cone and Belding’s advertising offices. She was promoted to copy-writer – not dissimilar to a Mad Men storyline – where her excitable, sensational writing was nurtured and helped secure writing and editing success at Cosmopolitan.

At five foot four, and proudly weighing just 100 pounds due to a punishing diet regime, Gurley Brown was a slight and frail presence at the many social gatherings she graced in New York. In later years, she made no secret of her love of plastic surgery, and famously said on her 60th birthday: “You can’t be sexual at 60 when you’re fat.”

Progressive or reactionary?

Despite her championing of women’s independence and “empowerment” before the word became engrained in Women’s Lib lingo, Gurley Brown had her critics within the feminist movement.

Betty Friedan, whose seminal The Feminist Mystique was published just one year after Sex and the Single Girl and is credited for sparking the second wave of feminism, at the time dismissed the magazine as “immature teenage-level sexual fantasy”. Others staged sit-ins at the office a few years after she took over, complaining about its ethos: “The entire message seemed to be ‘Seduce your boss, then marry him’,” said Ms Millet, who led protests.

“She did a lot for women, and has been rightly lauded for that, but we’ve moved on,” Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, co-editor of the Vagenda blog, told Channel 4 News. “Having read Sex and the Single Girl, much of her advice is strangely amoral – tips on how to have an affair with a married man, for example.”

The advice in Cosmopolitan became more political and interesting in the 1970s as the women’s movement gained momentum, Ms Cosslett added, but this was a brief hiccup “in what has otherwise been a long legacy of objectification”.

“If anything, she foreshadowed the raunch culture we now inhabit, in which we’re expected to give our boyfriends lap dances or take part in role play scenarios,” she said. “Basically, it’s all about the man and what he wants. The fact that this notion is still Cosmo’s bread and butter is incredibly depressing.”

‘How could any woman not be a feminist?’

There has also been broader criticism of Cosmo’s marketisation of sexual liberation, turning sex into a valuable, and sellable, product – something that Gurley Brown’s editorship gave birth to. The US edition currently includes the articles “Date night dresses no man can resist” and “Burn extra calories (without breaking a sweat)”.

My own philosophy is if you’re not having sex, you’re finished. Helen Gurley Brown

It is telling that Playboy mogul Hugh Hefner called her “a very important and independent voice related to the changing of women’s’ roles.”

But as a woman of her time, she revolutionised lives and created a space for women to discuss personal lives, sex, relationships and their aspirations.

Of feminism, she asked: “How could any woman not be a feminist?

“The girl I’m editing for wants to be known for herself. If that’s not a feminist message, I don’t know what is.”