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Remembering Helen Gurley Brown: A Complicated Legacy

Remembering Helen Gurley Brown: A Complicated Legacy

Like many feminists, I have some problems with Cosmopolitan.

Growing up, it was always a kind of aspirational magazine to me. It seemed adult with its sexy headlines about sex with actresses and models in candy colored cropped tops and jeans on the cover. The kind of magazine I would read when I was a woman.

I never became that woman. Instead I snarked about the women who read Cosmopolitan (not cool, I know) and always wondered if there were really THAT many different ways to give a blow job (really, is there?)

But I can’t discount the importance Helen Gurley Brown had on media and even in my own feminist development.

The first time I read Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl was in a women’s studies class about seven years ago. I remember being 20, and feminism still lay for me in stark black and white terms, unable to see the grey area where Gurley Brown stood.  I wondered why the fuck we were reading this book.

At first, I automatically wrote it off. But after multiple readings, especially alongside Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, and using it in many academic papers, I appreciated what Gurley Brown did.

She helped to normalize and create a culture for being a single woman.

Granted Sex and the Single Girl does touch upon some ridiculous things—how to meet men, how to dress to meet men, how to cook for men…but it was completely relevant for its time and quite frankly revolutionary.

She celebrated single women having careers that defined them, not marriages. Told them to ignore fear baiting articles about being single (*coughTHEATLANTICcough*). To enjoy sex without being ashamed, to enjoy being alone and have adventures and made it clear that you didn’t have to necessarily be traditionally beautiful to be sexy.  A point that Gurley Brown made about herself. And despite the grey feminist area,Gurley Brown lived in, she always unabashedly called herself a feminist:

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.

While Cosmopolitan continues to send mixed messages about being a woman—Helen Gurley Brown’s legacy will live on in the media empire she built and the culture she created for single women to exist and be accepted in. A culture, which still clearly has its own set of problems.  But one thing that we can’t take away from Helen Gurley Brown is that she gave women enough wiggle room to exist as both feminists and Cosmo girls.

Helen Gurley Brown, Cosmopolitan Editor, Dies at 90 (The New York Times)

Sex and the Single Girl: The Legacy of Helen Gurley Brown (The Atlantic Wire)

Savior of the Mouseburgers: The Legacy of Cosmopolitan Editor Helen Gurley Brown (Slate)

Helen Gurley Brown, the Original Carrie Bradshaw (Yahoo News)

Proust Questionnaire: Helen Gurley Brown (Vanity Fair)

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