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The Complicated Legacy of Helen Gurley Brown

Tuesday, August 14, 2012 2:00 PM Comments (41)

Helen Gurley Brown passed away at age 90 yesterday, and modern feminism is left to ponder her legacy.

She is sometimes held up by secular culture as a pioneer and a role model, yet feminists could never quite get comfortable with her. She championed women in the workplace and encouraged no-strings-attached sex, which earned her much praise, yet her feminist sisters often rejected her for her intense focus on attracting the attention of men. Brown said in her famous book Sex and the Single Girl that "if you aren't meeting any men through your job, you are in the wrong job." She advocated for sleeping with married men, and she summed up her thoughts on the impact it might have on wives by saying, "I'm afraid I have a rather cavalier attitude about wives. The reason is this: A wife, if she is loving and smart, will get her husband back every time."

She really attracted the ire of modern feminists when she wistfully recounted an old workplace game called "scuttle" for the Wall Street Journal:

When I was working my way through secretarial school in Los Angeles at radio station KHJ, and I came in from school every afternoon, some of the men would be playing a dandy game called 'Scuttle.'

Rules: All announcers and engineers who weren't busy would select a secretary, chase her down the halls, through the music library and back to the announcing booths, catch her and take her panties off.

Once the panties were off, the girl could put them back on again. Nothing wicked ever happened. Depantying was the sole object of the game.

While all this was going on, the girl herself usually shrieked, screamed, flailed, blushed, threatened and pretended to faint, but to my knowledge no scuttler was ever reported to the front office. Au contraire, the girls wore their prettiest panties to work. 

At the core of Brown's message to women was the view that attracting men is one of the most important things a woman could do, if not the most important. The intense diet and exercise regimens, meticulous dress, and the strict weight limits she suggested for women were all ordered toward being more sexually attractive to men. She wrote in Sex and the Single Girl:

The sheer stocking, the twenty-four-inch waist, the smoldering looking have nothing to do with successful mating or procreating, but they say to a man, "I'm with it. I have tried to make myself beautiful for you. I've gone to a lot of trouble because I think you're worth it and I like myself. I want you to notice me and want me."

Brown would bring this worldview with her when she took over Cosmopolitan magazine in 1965, and to this day the magazine is known for its headlines that promise to teach women how to please men sexually, with little concern for commitments or lasting relationships.

Betty Friedan once said that Cosmopolitan is "quite obscene and quite horrible" because it "embraces the idea that a woman is nothing but a sex object." In more recent times, countless feminist websites have lambasted Brown for being a traitor to the feminist cause. Modern secular culture seemed to have little use for Brown's ideas, seeing her at best as a quasi-feminist with outdated views, and at worse as a betrayer of womankind.

But is this fair?

It strikes me that Brown may have been denied the full embrace of modern secular feminism simply because of her intellectual honesty. Her views were wildly politically incorrect, but they flowed directly from the "truths" held dear by American culture. If it is the case that it's good and healthy for single women to be sexually active, then is it so outrageous to suggest that they should make themselves as physically appealing as possible in order to maximize their prospects for sex? Many feminists echoed Betty Friedan's words and claimed that Brown's views objectified women, but Brown merely pointed out the obvious truth that if a woman wants to have a variety of sexual encounters with men she doesn't know well (and who therefore would not even have the opportunity to be interested in her for anything other than her body), then she'd better put down that brownie and get to the gym.

When modern-day feminism shunned the traditional understanding of human sexuality in which sex was meant for marriage and marriage meant commitment and mutual self-sacrifice, it was they who laid the foundation for the objectification of women. Brown merely took those ideas to their logical conclusions.

Brown never caved in to pressure to change her message, and in the end she became a tragic symbol of its consequences. She once advised women that "if you're not a sex object, you're in trouble," and that idea certainly gets harder and harder for a woman to maintain as the years roll by. She wrote in her memoir Wild Again about getting breast implants when she was 73 and working out for two 45-minute sessions a day, seven days a week, even into her late 70s (saying that being skinny was still "sacred" to her). Brown's passing yesterday marked the closing of an era, the end of a type of controversial feminism whose ideas she boldly and fearlessly originated. May she now find the peace that eluded her in this life.

Filed under feminism, secular society

About Jennifer Fulwiler

Jennifer Fulwiler
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Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She's a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.