Confessions of a Former ‘Cosmo Girl’

IN PERSON interview with veteran journalist Sue Ellen Browder

(photo: Photo courtesy of Sue Ellen Browder)
Veteran journalist Sue Ellen Browder’s book, Subverted: How I Helped the Sexual Revolution Hijack the Women’s Movement (Ignatius, 2015), recounts some very real challenges she faced writing for Cosmopolitan, the quintessential women’s magazine of the time. Browder was an eyewitness to how the women’s movement went from admirable goals of economic and social justice to ones of selfishness and unfettered moral license. In excerpts taken from two interviews with the Register’s editor in chief, Jeanette De Melo, Browder — also a longtime correspondent for the Register and a featured speaker at the 2016 March for Life in Washington — discusses the heartbreaking path she trod to healing in the Church.


How was the women’s movement in the beginning?

When I was in college, the women’s movement was gaining full force. It had been started in 1963, with Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique. That was the beginning. And women in those days — there were a lot of things that needed to be changed. I was fired in 1969 for being pregnant. You could only work five months, and then you had to quit, with no promise of having a job again. Married women couldn’t apply for credit in their own name. There were a lot of medical schools and law schools that did not allow women in. There were a lot of things the women’s movement was fighting against — inequalities in the workforce and education — because women were pouring into the culture at that time, into the workplace, and they were finding all sorts of terrible discrimination. So that was the women’s movement, and that was started by Betty Friedan, and also a bunch of women in Washington, D.C. — again, working women who were running into these logjams in their lives and needed some help.

I went to work at Cosmo in the early 1970s, but I noticed there that the sexual revolution and the women’s movement were two radically different movements. Betty Friedan called Cosmo quite obscene and quite horrible. Cosmo was promoting the sexual-revolution agenda — it was good to sleep with a married man; good to take the pill; good, or at least necessary, to have an abortion to get ahead if you became inconveniently pregnant. Our Cosmo philosophy turned all traditional values upside down.

So you had these two radically different movements. But one dark night, in Washington D.C., in 1967, they were joined together in the eyes of the media.


You researched what happened that night and wrote about it in a chapter of your book called “A Fly on the Wall in the Chinese Room.” What happens in the Chinese Room in Washington?

The Chinese Room in the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 18, 1967: It was the second annual conference for the National Organization for Women. And that was the night they inserted abortion into the women’s movement as a “right.” They named eight rights that night. They were creating a bill of rights, a political bill of rights that was going to be their political platform. That is still the political platform that we are dealing with today. Fifty years later, this political platform is still with us. And they had eight rights — and most were [things like] women shouldn’t be fired for being pregnant; family leave; maternity leave — the very things that women really needed. So there were two battles that day over which rights would be inserted. Some of them, everyone agreed on. But two of them were fought over. One of them was the Equal Rights Amendment. The other one was abortion, which we are still fighting today.

There were only 57 people that night that voted to insert abortion into the women’s movement. A third of these very ardent feminists walked out of that meeting and later resigned from NOW over the abortion vote. We had a split in the women’s movement that very night, which we are still fighting today.


In the subtitle of your book, you describe that you helped the “Sexual Revolution hijack the Women’s Movement”.  What was your role in the transformation of the women's movement from an interest in helping women who were not able to get jobs to something much more crass?

I went to Cosmopolitan in the early 1970s and got a job there. I was trying to make a living. I trained as a magazine writer. And Cosmo was the biggest women’s magazine in the nation at that time. And I was fascinated with glamour because I had come from a small town in Iowa. So I went to that magazine really just to get a job. And it was while I was there that I saw, that the “Sexual Revolution” and the “Women’s Movement” were two dramatically different movements. I didn’t realize that until I got on staff.

Now Cosmo, in those days, you have to remember, didn’t look like it does today. Cosmo was much softer. There were a lot of “How-To” articles in it- how to buy a used car, how to handle those harrowing headaches. It was a very soft sell in those days on the sexual revolution. It was women’s sexual fantasies that we were selling. It was only when I got on staff, and I saw that we were making up a lot of those stories and when I saw that Betty Friedan had called Cosmo “quite obscene and quite horrible” that I realized the two were separate. From my vantage, I thought of myself as a family feminist. I was married, with a child. Helen Gurley Brown [Cosmo's editor in chief] was married. My articles’ editor that I worked for was married. We were not living this “Cosmo girl” lifestyle, we were just selling it.


Who was the “Cosmo girl”?

Well, the “Cosmo girl” is a persona. She was a deception from the beginning. In the beginning there was no “Cosmo girl”. It was just a fantasy that Helen Gurley Brown had made up as a marketing fantasy. 

How do you sell a young woman on beautiful clothes, all this makeup, all these things for your hair, abortions, contraceptives — all these things? You sell her on the “Cosmo girl” lifestyle. Which is sexually free, unmarried sex, sex with married men — all of these things that we were selling. You sell that, and then, pretty soon, she is automatically going to need the clothes, going to need the hair, need the makeup, and eventually she is going to need the contraception, and eventually, she is probably going to need an abortion. So you see, when people say “How did you help the sexual revolution hijack the women’s movement?” I say I sold the “Cosmo girl” lifestyle. And we made up those things.


Many women have been affected by this part of history. How did you personally get caught up in it?

Well, because I was working for Cosmo, and I bought into abortion, contraception and sex education being a right for women, I didn’t question that; I trusted the women’s movement, and once that right was inserted in there, it was pretty hard to sort out that package. I didn’t know what had happened in the Chinese Room. In fact, I didn’t know what happened until I wrote this book. So I was swept up in the sexualized women’s movement, if you will: the sexual revolution, the confusion between the sexual revolution and the women’s movement.

And as you know in my book, I had an abortion as well. And that was one of the worst decisions — it was the worst decision — I ever made in my life.

I had not even told my 45-year-old son that I had this abortion. And when I finished this book, I knew I was going to have to tell him — because I couldn’t just spring this on him in a book, that I killed one of his siblings. So Dustin is not a Catholic, but he takes me to church. And he went with me to church one day — he is in L.A. — and I went down to talk to him, and, specifically, I knew I had to tell him about this before this book came out. So I was praying, and I said, “Lord, please tell me how I should approach this.” And the message came back to me, “Tell him now.”

So, as we walked out of church and walked across the parking lot, I said, “Dustin, there is something I have to tell you.” And it was very difficult, and he just gave me a big old bear hug, and he said, “I am so sorry that happened to you.” Wasn’t that beautiful?

We have an abortion-wounded nation. Vicki Thorn made that very important point when I was interviewing her for the Register: We have an abortion-wounded nation. One-third of the people you will meet have either participated [in], or have had, or have paid for an abortion — men, women. One in three. So we have to be very gentle about this battle we are fighting. Because everybody is wounded.


Your late husband, Walter, handled the abortion in a very different way, but he still bore the pain of losing this child through abortion. Can you tell us about Walter’s experience?

Well, you know, we never really talked about it. You can see in the book, when he blurts that out to Father Bruce Lamb during our first talk to a Catholic priest and says, “We have had an abortion!” And that was the first time that I had ever heard him say it. I had always thought of that abortion as something I was bearing alone, and it had never occurred to me that he was bearing the pain, too.

And I do think, you know, his favorite book — the book that he was so fond of — that he wrote, that he was so happy with was 101 Secrets a Good Dad Knows; and it was about how to feed a horse, hammer a nail, skip a rock, stuff like that, and I think that book came out of his pain from that abortion. You know, I think there was part of him that wanted to say, “I’m still a good dad,” and he was, of course. That’s the first time I’ve ever said that to anybody. But I think that book — his love of that book, his pride of that book — came out of the pain of that abortion. … Walter had a very tender heart.

We did that very quickly — as you saw in the book — we decided on that abortion very quickly. As you can see in that book, Walter was a very decisive man who made quick decisions. And that was a quick decision, a temporary decision that had permanent consequences.


Sue Ellen, you mentioned finding healing in the Catholic Church. What was the process of healing and peace for you?

Well, it was forgiveness: Christ’s forgiveness; going to confession; being healed by Christ’s forgiveness. There is a moment where, going into confession, Father Bruce, who was my confessor at the time, told me that that baby was still alive [in the Kingdom of Heaven]. That was a shocker to me. I hadn’t really thought of it that way. And my first impulse was: I don’t want to meet the child I killed. Then he reasoned with me: “Would you rather that child not be alive?” I said, “No, of course not.” He reasoned with me; he was very gentle. The last thing he said, as my penance … he said to go home, pray to God, and think about how much God loves you. And that was the healing, through confession and forgiveness — and that joy of God’s love that heals.


You will be speaking on a platform that is quite large at the March for Life. What message do you want that crowd to hear that day?

I want women to know that this pro-life family, feminist movement is the authentic women’s movement of the 21st century. I want them to know ... Roe v. Wade is built upon a mountain of propaganda, a mountain of lies, and it will tumble on its own. But even after we bring down Roe v. Wade, we still have a family feminist movement, a pro-life movement. We’ve got a lot of other things we have to fight for. We need to keep fighting for them.

So I want them to realize they are [part of the] pro-life, women’s, family, feminist movement of the 21st century. I want to change this paradigm so that Planned Parenthood people who claim to be speaking for feminists can’t get away with it anymore.


And do you see hope today?

There is extreme hope, extreme hope. First of all, the pro-life, family, feminist movement is the one that has the “shock troops” on the ground. We have the power. We have the grassroots power. We have had it for a long time. On the state level, we are changing things. On the grassroots level, we are changing things. So we’ve just got the powers from on high with their money and their propaganda mills pouring at us from the top. But we are working from the bottom. And I have to tell you: I believe power comes from the bottom up. So I think we are winning.