Helen Gurley Brown, legendary editor of Cosmopolitan Magazine (1965-1997), died yesterday. She was 90 years old. Admittedly, I knew nothing of the legacy of the woman who would be responsible for informing and influencing my views about femininity, sex and sexuality in the media. My earliest relationship with Cosmopolitan Magazine amounted to annual purchases in January to read the Bedside Astrologer as if it were the mystical diving agent to determine what my year in relationships would garner.
Still, Brown’s Cosmopolitan shifted the culture around lady magazines, removing the taboo around frank talk about sex and desire that the women of Sterling, Cooper, Draper and Pryce certainly could appreciate. Brown’s covers were graced by voluptuous models, celebrities and her taglines scandalized (all of which according to Brown, were written by her husband).
Brown even penned a book titled, ‘Having It All’ which is a lightening rod for a circular conversation among women around privilege and the work/life balance. Her own life as chronicled in the 1982 book was a veritable hybrid of Holly Golightly and Jay Gatsby, and as American a narrative as ever, a self made woman who overcame her low economic circumstance and achieved great success. Brown never had children. Brown felt she was a feminist, and in many ways the forbearer to sex positive feminism as Irin Carmon notes:
In “Bad Girls Go Everywhere,” Gurley Brown’s biographer, Jennifer Scanlon represents Gurley Brown as a feminist whose attitudes towards sex prefigured “sex positive” feminism. That included acknowledging female desire, particularly a desire for men’s bodies. Gurley’s stubborn refusal to “demonize” men, or have any unpleasantness at all in her magazine, kept her at loggerheads with many second wavers; she saw it as simply practical. “I acknowledge that men keep women back,” Gurley Brown wrote, “but since sex is terrific and it comes from men, you can’t rule men out of this world and say they’re all terrible and rotten, because you’re going to need them for your own purposes.”
Being a modern woman in America means that we’re constantly negotiating with our bodies in relationship with men, women, the mirror, fixed culture morays and norms about our bodies, clothing… you get the picture. Even in this strange-weird and unfortunate political climate where more than 40 years after Brown took the helm of Cosmo to inform the male world that perhaps we too have an appetite beyond the perfect graham cracker crust for key lime pies (admittedly might make one think of an orgasm, but obviously, still pales to the actual thing) we’re still fighting for our right to protect what happens in our vagina, let along say ‘vagina’.
Yeah, our work is never finished.