What I remember most from 12 years of Catholic school, is that everything having to do with boys is a sin. And we had better believe it. One day a classmate at Marymount raised her hand in religion class and asked, "Is French kissing a mortal sin?" The nun answered without hesitation: "Yes." We all knew that if you died with a mortal sin on your soul, you went straight to Hell -- so if we were even considering this French kissing thing, we were taking eternity into our own hands.
French kissing and murder -- all the same in God's book.
Imagine the thrill that sprang through all of us -- we who grew up wearing those navy blue jumpers and white blouses -- when, years later, we breathlessly leafed through the pages of Helen Gurley Brown's explosive 1962 book, Sex And The Single Girl, which described in unblushing detail a step-by-step strategy by which women could embrace their most secret sexual urges. Three weeks after its publication, the book had sold 3,000,000 copies.
By then my Marymount classmates and I had left our blue jumpers far behind, along with the nun's fiery lessons. But some part of those flames still burned.
Before there was Erica Jong or Fifty Shades of Grey, there was Helen Gurley Brown, the pioneering publishing icon who passed away on Monday at the age of 90. A secretary-turned-copywriter-turned author, Helen rocked the culture with her revolutionary ideas about women and sexuality -- and she did so without fear or apology.
I know, I know, there is plenty to debate about Brown's brand of feminism -- her signature Cosmopolitan magazine referred to women as "girls," and its covers regularly featured models with puffed-up cleavage and headlines that promised man-snaring advice.
But her landmark book freed young women of the early '60s, permitting them to reconsider their mothers' (and their teachers') admonishments about boys and men -- "Males are animals, females are their trainers" or " Why buy the cow if you can get the milk free?" (Feel free to add your own.) It took some doing to untangle our sexiest selves from the memory of those warnings. We can laugh now, but there were many such lessons to rethink, and they all added up to the same conclusion: sexuality belonged to men; and taming boys, restraining your sensuality, and finding matrimonial security were women's work.
But Helen changed all of that. And though her ideas weren't as scholarly as Betty Friedan's or as scientific as Kinsey's, she was every bit a godmother of the sexual revolution.
So farewell, Helen -- with gratitude from a Marymount girl who agonized about all those boy feelings. You were the first and, at the time, only teacher to reveal that those feelings were not sinful. They were normal and exciting. You were my first experience with the "lib" of "Women's Liberation."
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