It didn't take long for some to start trashing the legacy of Helen Gurley Brown after the Cosmo editor died earlier this week at 90 years old. It doesn't even make sense that anyone would question her legitimacy as a pioneer of the women's movement or even her credibility as a self-proclaimed feminist. Let's face it, if it weren't for HGB popularizing—hell, institutionalizing—her philosophy that it was not only OK for single women to enjoy sex, but that it was part of a larger, important issue of self-actualization, publications like Jezebel wouldn't exist.
In her seminal advice book Sex and the Single Girl, HGB encouraged women to be financially independent and sexually satisfied—a full year before Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique. Telling women to prioritize getting paid and getting laid over motherhood and homemaking was beyond radical in 1962. It was unheard of; it was immoral; it was the antithesis of feminine behavior. It was what would eventually define the modern, single, liberated woman.
Despite the release of Bad Girls Go Everywhere, Jennifer Scanlon's 2009 full-length biography of HGB, hailing her as a feminist icon, the late editor still doesn't seem to get the respect she deserves—even in death. In a piece about HGB this week for the Washington Post, Kathleen Parker suggests that we "not take her seriously," deriding her beliefs as "stiletto feminism" and bitchily referencing her breast implants and disinterest in having children as evidence that she was some selfish, immature dilettante.
But HGB's early life was an inspiration for the creation of Mad Men's resident blossoming feminist Peggy Olsen, according to the show's creator Matthew Weiner. She worked her way up from the secretary pool to copywriter at an advertising agency after her boss noticed her talents.
She didn't marry until she was 37, which was considered bizarre in 1959. Even after she was married (to the same man for over 50 years) she chose having a career over having a family and never regretted the decision. That's not how women are supposed to be! Not even modern women! We're supposed to "have it all," or at least want to have it all.
Having it all—a phrase that's been the bane of feminism for three decades—means having a career and a family, or so we've been told. Oddly, though, not by HGB, who was the one who actually coined the term in the early '80s with her book Having It All: Love, Success, Sex, Money Even If You're Starting With Nothing.
"You can have it all," she later said. "And it's a hell of a lot of work. And it causes considerable stress. I never, so to speak, had it all. But I had my all, which is what I wanted: work and love."
How are these concepts not in line with the women's movement? How did HGB get such a bad rep amongst Serious Feminists? Well, in part it had to do with her focus on sex, which is still a divisive issue in feminism, and even more so for second-wavers. As BUST Magazine's Debbie Stoller points out:
The truth is, feminists of the early '70s had a sex problem; they weren't quite sure how to address it, they didn't know what to do with it, and they worried that focusing on it too much might derail the entire movement. In fact, Betty Friedan demanded that the issues of sex and sexuality were taken off the table when forming NOW and determining its platform…So there was Gurley Brown, America's first "pro-sex" feminist, causing trouble, raising some feminist's hackles.
Friedan found her "obscene and horrible." In 1982, Gloria Steinem said, "She's fooling herself if she thinks her message is a feminist one. She's telling women that if they look good, smell good, wear the right perfume and underwear, wonderful things will happen to them."
Steinem was perhaps overly dismissive of HGB, but she also had a point. While the feminist movement was trying to stop women from being objectified, HGB was shooting off pithy, problematic sound bites like, "If you're not a sex object, you're in trouble."
But part of what made HGB such a trailblazer was that, unlike other feminists, she didn't see high heels and dresses and lipstick and blow jobs as the shackles that bind us to a prison of traditional womanhood, but rather, part of what enables us to revel in the fun of femininity. And that can be really liberating.
Because we are allowed to actually enjoy being women. It isn't merely a horrible existence tormented by the patriarchy. However, it's also a complicated issue. While some of the core tenets of HGB's philosophy of sexual empowerment inculcated those of Riot Grrrl zines, BUST, and Jezebel, ironically these publications were founded in direct oppositional response to the suffocating beauty conventions, vapid content, rampant consumerism, and the laughable sexy sex tips of mainstream women's magazines—particularly that of Cosmopolitan.
Yeah, maybe HGB's ideas have morphed into a cleavage-bearing, 15-minute-orgasming monster with perpetually wind-blown hair that has dominated the magazine industry. And maybe her initial beliefs didn't gel with feminist scholars. And, sure, some of notions are dated, and cisgendered, and hetero, and play heavily into the male gaze. HGB wasn't perfect. Does that nullify everything she did for women?
Feminism is an evolutionary movement, not a static or monolithic one. We are constantly learning from our mistakes, educating each other, understanding new perspectives and adapting to the world in which we live. Even HGB herself progressed as she aged. In a 1988 interview with PBS she spoke about how her feminism had changed over the years:
I was so caught up in the idea that men were not the enemy and that we must defend and protect and love men...that I just wanted to sort of indicate, I guess, that I wasn't mad at men.
Now I'm not sure that you can be a feminist without being a "militant feminist," without going the full distance. And I expect to do that and keep doing it. So let's just say that those phrases sounded right to me at the time, I'm not so sure they do now.
That she managed to piss off both Serious Feminists and traditionalists alike only proves that, in many ways, HGB was ahead of her time. Luckily, she lived long enough for everyone else to catch up.
She infamously co-opted a Mae West quote to be her life's mantra: "Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere." But it's fun to think of Helen Gurley Brown, sitting on a cloud, coming up with tips on how to masturbate with the flutter of angel wings or how to turn a halo into a cock ring, as she smiles down on us benevolently, the patron saint of well-dressed sluts.