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."