In Bad Girls Go Everywhere, Jennifer Scanlon tries hard to make Helen Gurley Brown look like an unjustly overlooked feminist icon — and she kind of succeeds.
Reviewers have been skeptical. Gina Bellafante in the Times pokes fun at "Brown's brand of sex-positive, everyone-in-a-miniskirt feminism" and slyly likens her to Sarah Palin. Judith Thurman in The New Yorker is slightly more charitable, writing, "what has changed since Brown wrote Sex and the Single Girl is that women have more roles to play, on a greater stage. She helped-but only modestly-to expand the repertoire."
From a feminist perspective, Brown has a lot of strikes against her. She turned Cosmopolitan into what it is today — the Cosmopolitan Institute of Man-Pleasing, and many of her opinions over the years have been pretty obnoxious. Brown believed women should lie to men in order to flatter them. She once said, "There's enough trouble having a man in your life without saying, 'Look, I didn't have an orgasm last night.'" She thought women should use every possible method to remain attractive, including cosmetic surgery and extreme dieting ("I think you may have to have a tiny touch of anorexia nervosa to maintain an ideal weight"). And, at least when she was younger, she repeatedly and cheerfully suggested that women finance their lifestyles by getting men to give them money.
On the other hand, Brown always championed two things that remain controversial for women: working and being single. Scanlon points out that while Betty Friedan promoted work as an antidote to domestic stagnation for middle-class housewives, Brown spoke to women who had to work — but still believed they could enjoy it. Though her claim that "you can have almost anything, anything you want out of life if you work like a wharf-rat at everything you take on" may seem naive, Brown thought of her own life as proof that a working-class girl without exceptional beauty or a magnetic personality (she repeatedly called herself a "mouseburger") could work her way up to great success — and that this process was the most important process of her life. Work, she said, "can build more self-esteem than any psychiatrist, self-help book or lecture." Work was "a blessing," even for single parents, even for those forced into jobs by dire circumstances. In Cosmo and in her books, Brown repeated that a job, not a man or children, should be the center of a woman's life, and that even the lowliest job could turn into a fulfilling career.
Of course, Brown did think men were important for straight women (although she attempted to include discussions of homosexuality in her books and in Cosmo, her publishers usually quashed these attempts). She just didn't think they needed to marry them. In Sex and the Single Girl, she wrote that the single woman "is engaging because she lives by her wits. She supports herself. She has to sharpen her personality and mental resources to a glitter in order to survive in a competitive world, and the sharpening looks good." Brown acknowledged that singlehood could produce anxiety — "many's the time I was sure I would die alone in my spinster's bed" — but she argued that it was worth it — "I could never bring myself to marry just to get married. I would have missed a great deal of misery along the way, no doubt, but also a great deal of fun." Most interestingly, Brown didn't think singlehood was exclusively for the young. "A girl of 35, 45 or older shouldn't worry about getting married," she wrote, and in her newspaper column she championed the decision of a sixty-two-year-old woman to "stay friends" with a man rather than marrying him.
Helen Gurley Brown could be intolerant (she told a reporter that married women were "dull and hypocritical") and tone-deaf (she thought that the unattainability of her cover models' beauty made women more comfortable with them), but in a world where women are still made to feel guilty for working and not getting married, some of her views are pretty refreshing. Reading Bad Girls Go Everywhere is a sobering reminder that things really haven't changed that much since Sex and the Single Girl was published in 1962. Women still have to apologize for "delaying marriage," for letting their "market value" decline, for having the gall to think they can marry when and if they want, rather than when other people think they should.
In her review of Bad Girls Go Everywhere in this weekend's Washington Post, Naomi Wolf writes, "Brown is a genuinely important figure who pioneered a feminism that championed women as cheerful, self-empowered individualists," but she also says that Brown's "sexier, sassier" version of feminism has triumphed over Friedan's. While one brand of feminism may have triumphed over another, feminism as a whole still has a lot of work to do. Maybe even more now than at the height of second-wave feminism, women need advocates to remind the world that they have value outside of marriage, that far from being depreciating assets they are independent people who get better and stronger the more they struggle. Helen Gurley Brown was far from a perfect advocate, but she spoke for women's independence persistently for a very long time, and she doesn't deserve to be dismissed.