In the sixties, I was the only daughter of a divorced woman who had dreamed of a fairytale life with Prince Charming, unaware of the secret chapter where Prince Charming moved on without her. Consequently, she never quite grew up to be the woman she'd dreamed of being. Rather than settle into the traditional role of "mommy," Barbara -- as she insisted I call her in public -- preferred to treat me as if I were a short, clingy girlfriend. My weekdays were spent living with my grandparents in the Ft. Tryon Park area of Washington Heights attending Mother Cabrini, a private school for girls. But on the weekends, I was transported to my mother's apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in an unofficial subdivision known as The Stew Zoo because so many of the residents were single women who worked as stewardesses. Barbara's job was firmly grounded in an office on Madison Avenue, but she opted for this community because it gave her a second chance at following the lifestyle from a new storybook: Sex and The Single Girl.
If I had to pick out one year from my childhood that most stands out in memory, it would be 1964 -- the year of inappropriate exposures for a little girl. Some of the movies Barbara took me to see included Goldfinger, Night of the Iguana and Sex and The Single Girl. By the time I saw the latter film, I'd already read portions of the book. It was a fixture on my Barbara's coffee table, in full view as if to stand as a declaration of independence for a young divorcée. I was repeatedly told (again, at an insanely inappropriately young age) that women were finally liberated and didn't have to live in service to a man's whim anymore. I had no way of knowing that a few decades later I would live in constant service to the whims of my husband and three sons... but I digress.
Helen Gurley Brown sent a wake-up call to all of the Barbaras in that generation. She gave them permission to think of themselves as normal and healthy; to live in a way their mothers could not imagine possible. While the women's liberation movement dealt with politics and professional opportunity, Sex and The Single Girl was an instruction manual for women to step out of their traditional roles and explore their individuality.
By the time I reached my twenties, Cosmopolitan was on the list of magazines you simply HAD to subscribe to in order to be hip and in the know. The women's liberation movement was -- we so naively thought -- a given. But our sexuality still needed some coaching in the post-sexual revolution/pre-HIV culture. All these years later, Cosmo endures and so, we thought, would Helen Gurley Brown. Her ninety years on the planet empowered generations of women to step out of the shadow of stereotypes and live life to the fullest. It is safe to say that as she wrote, so did she live. RIP, HGB.
Follow Catherine Clinch on Twitter: www.twitter.com/catherineclinch