Showing posts with label feminist. Show all posts
Showing posts with label feminist. Show all posts

Friday, June 12, 2009

the other feminist

Practical feminist: a new book celebrates Helen Gurley Brown, the pioneering editor of Cosmopolitan | Life and style | The Guardian
More than three decades before Sex and the City became a television phenomenon, Helen Gurley Brown wrote Sex and the Single Girl, a guidebook for women who wanted to live large and stay single. The book was a rallying cry for unmarried women, exploding myths of lonely spinsters, and became a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. It was published in 28 countries and 16 languages and the fame it brought led Brown to the position for which she became legendary: editor of Cosmopolitan magazine. With its provocative covers, featuring lots of hair, bare skin and cleavage, the magazine quickly came to stand for a new kind of female: fearless, independent, and undeniably sexy. It too became an international success - after the British edition was created in 1972 other countries followed and the magazine eventually reached more than 100m readers around the world.

Over the years, Brown has been interviewed by countless journalists but ignored by scholars. Critics point out that she peddled cleavage on every month's cover of Cosmo, suggested that women should work the system rather than overthrow it, and even saw her offices taken over by protesting feminists. Yet to me Brown deserves a place in the pantheon of 20th-century feminist leaders. She was not just an infamous promoter of women's sexual liberation, she was a working-class woman's role model who declared herself, her magazine and her message feminist.

But can a woman who peddled cleavage be a trailblazer? Helen Gurley Brown was an early and influential advocate of open discussions about female sexuality. In the postwar period, western women got lots of advice on how they should live their lives - namely through men and marriage with sex subordinate to both. Single women who could not attract a husband were pitied; single women who had the temerity to choose not to marry were scorned. During those years, Brown, a secretary and then an advertising copywriter, held off on marriage and dated widely, including colleagues and bosses, living, as she would advocate for her readers, in "superlative style". She allowed herself to feel and act on sexual desire, which she considered as natural for women as for men. "You inherited it," she said simply, encouraging other women to allow themselves the same sexual desires - and freedoms - men enjoyed.

When Sex and the Single Girl hit the bookshops in 1962, Brown's philosophy resonated deeply and broadly. The book spent months on the bestseller lists and was published in 28 countries. The Kinsey Reports, the fruits of research into postwar sexual practices, had already demonstrated that Americans practised more sex than they preached. Sex and the Single Girl went further. It offered women inspirational case studies rather than scientific analyses. Women who hoped to find their own proclivities for sex and sensuality affirmed found in the unapologetic Brown the spokeswoman they craved. By focusing on women's calls for steamy sex rather than matching washer-dryers, she developed an enormous following among single and married women alike. In the aftermath of the book's publication she received so much fan mail that her local post office eventually decided they would no longer deliver it. Three years later, Brown took over the ailing Cosmopolitan magazine in part to connect with these devoted fans. Her followers considered her a liberator who freed them from the confines of an outdated but still intact ideology.

Brown also came to understand that her high sales figures meant she could have fairly free reign over her publications, which included numerous books. But had she had her way, lesbian sexuality would have emerged in her writings from the start. Brown fought, first with her publisher and then with the higher-ups at Hearst, to include queer sexualities not as aberrations but as normal elements of grown-up life. In drafts of her most important books, and in the template for Cosmo, she had stories of lesbians inside and outside of the workplace. Brown lost the battle several times but waged it anew from time to time, wanting to celebrate the many ways in which women found expression socially and sexually. Her notions about sex were lesbian-friendly from the start.

Brown's famous Cosmo covers were visual examples of her philosophy, and they resonated with millions of women and across more than three decades, contrary to what some other feminists might have believed or hoped. Brown intuitively understood that not just men but women enjoyed looking at beautiful women, and believed that all women benefited from seeing female sexuality writ large. She understood well that women, as feminists later would claim, "performed" femininity as they put on and took off skirts of varying hemlines, cosmetics and heels. She balked at the idea promoted by other feminists of the day that women had to forgo these practices to become liberated. Yes, women's sexy appearances invited men to look, but Brown would never apologise for that. Sex, and sexiness, formed tools if not weapons in women's arsenal.

Unlike Betty Friedan, the author of The Feminine Mystique, who wanted to liberate middle-class housewives from their boxed-in lives, or Gloria Steinem, whose Ms. magazine targeted college-educated women, Brown deliberately targeted working-class women with her game plan for liberation. A child of the Great Depression, who came of age in a single-parent family, she had the brains but not the opportunity to attend college. Instead, she worked in low-paying white-collar jobs in her earlier years, and felt an affinity for the secretaries, retail clerks and airline attendants who read her books and magazine. Like her, these women often had to find ways to work the system, since they hardly had the privilege to beat it. Even if they wanted to leave off wearing makeup and dresses, which many did not, they would have been hard pressed to find jobs that allowed them to reject the female uniform of the day. These women largely pursued jobs, not careers, and if they worked the system again after hours by relying on men to pay for their nights out - well, they could hardly have had much of a social life on their salaries alone.

It wasn't that Brown did not push for greater changes for women. She actively worked for the equal rights amendment, which would have constitutionally guaranteed women in the US rights equal to those of men, and for reproductive rights, including abortion. She looked for opportunities to promote the practical changes endorsed by more political feminists, but still maintained that her women had to play the system as best they could. Brown advocated work (not men) as women's greatest ally, but she also understood the limitations of the work world just as she understood the limitations of men. She knew that her working-class followers might find only one or two job titles available to them regardless of their skills - and might repeatedly watch less-qualified men be promoted over them. They should, as a result, always allow men to pay for nights out, for babysitters if they were single parents, and for alcohol if they happened to invite a man in to their apartment. When others repeatedly faulted her for this philosophy of manipulating rather than refashioning the economics of sex and gender relations, Brown's response was simple and direct: "I deal in reality."

In 1970, feminists targeted Cosmopolitan, among other women's magazines, as being hopelessly stuck in an anachronistic past. They took over the offices of the staid US woman's magazine the Ladies' Home Journal, and once inside feminists were able to push the magazine to offer greater coverage of women's paid work and interests outside the home. But when they tried to take over the offices of Cosmopolitan and demand feminist content, they encountered not an uncertain male editor but a woman who let them know that she saw her magazine as already feminist. Her readers, she knew, wanted to read about men and sex as well as money and work, and she saw it as her responsibility as a feminist to give them more rather than fewer choices about how they lived their lives.

In the end, many women who remained only partly aware of, or unmoved by other feminist leaders, found an affirming vision and voice in Brown. Countless women were touched by this pioneer who promoted women's empowerment - and feminism - in her own upbeat, practical and fearless way.

• Bad Girls Go Everywhere: The Life of Helen Gurley Brown by Jennifer Scanlon is published by Oxford University Press on 25 June.