I was 6 years old when Sex and the Single Girl was published and Helen Gurley Brown pushed women around the country (and possibly the world) "to get everything out of life -- the money, recognition, success, men, prestige, authority, dignity -- whatever she is looking at through the glass her nose is pressed against." If that's not empowering, I'm not sure what is.
My mother was a single woman from Brooklyn working as a secretary in Manhattan just when Brown was coming into her own. Mom wasn't exactly a 'mouseburger,' the term Brown would often use to refer to women, including herself, who had to work hard to make themselves be heard, seen and appreciated, but she was a product of her times. Success, in all its forms, was not something young women automatically believed was theirs for the taking. Sexual success, especially, was the domain of men.
But Helen Gurley Brown's relentless message -- told through her books and then through the lens of Cosmopolitan magazine, one of the most successful publications for women of all time -- changed everything. I remember seeing a copy of the book in my mother's room as I snuck in to try on her jewelry and leopard-print scarves while she was still at work. Eventually, copies of Cosmopolitan showed up, much to the chagrin of my immigrant German grandmother, who lived with us. But even at my young age, I witnessed a transformation in my mother. During this time, this lovely woman in her mid-twenties seemed to come out of her shell. She started to wear stylish, slightly sexy dresses and high heels to work, and came home from work later than usual on more than a few nights -- once again making my grandmother frown -- inspired, no doubt by Brown's bold pronouncements that women should have it all. A few years later, my mother did something that was straight out of Brown's book: She married the boss.
Early leaders of the women's movement bitterly criticized Brown for "peddling cleavage" and trying to convince women to "seduce your boss, then marry him." According to one article,
When Cosmo first hit the radar in the '60s, Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, damned Brown's new sexual-freedom philosophies as anti-feminist: she called Cosmo an "immature teenage-level sexual fantasy."
But what many failed to realize (and some still don't) was that Brown was a working class hero and a fierce and fearless advocate of women's sexuality and rights. For too long, women who were not in high positions in the workforce (like my mother) could never imagine viewing themselves as anything other than powerless. The idea, for many of them, of actually pursing what you want -- a job, money, man or sex -- and expecting to get it seemed to be an impossible dream. And, unfortunately, the women's movement at that time seemed too high-minded, unapproachable and unreachable for many women like my mother.
Helen Gurley Brown, on the other hand, spoke to them in a voice that was clear, convincing and, just as important, fun -- an element that, by many counts, was sorely lacking in the women's movement. And Brown's message wasn't just focused on sex. It was about working hard and earning and deserving every single thing you got.
While I probably can't credit Helen Gurley Brown completely, I think the dots are clearly connected between her message and how my mother raised my sister and me to be independent women, unafraid of going for it, whatever "it" is.
I called my mother a little while ago to tell her that Helen Gurley Brown had passed on at the age of 90. A moment went by until she laughed softly and said, "Helen Gurley Brown...my hero."
As a mother, feminist and woman, I applaud Helen Gurley Brown and honor her memory as a pioneer in women's rights and sexuality who should be included in the pantheon of the most important feminist leaders of the last century.
Here's to Helen Gurley Brown... the 'mouseburger' who made it.
Follow Barbara Hannah Grufferman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/BGrufferman