08/15/2012 11:28 am ET Updated Oct 15, 2012

What Helen Gurley Brown Taught Us About Money, Sex and Power

Sexual intercourse, said Philip Larkin, began in 1963. For unmarried women in America, it began the year before, when a 40-year-old woman named Helen Gurley Brown published a book called Sex and the Single Girl.

"Dear Helen," her mother wrote in a telegram a few weeks before it was due to come out, "if you move very quickly, I think we can stop publication." You can see why Gurley Brown's mother might have wanted to. Not all that many mothers in 1962 would have wanted their daughter to offer tips on how to start an affair. Not all that many mothers would have wanted their daughters to offer advice on how to bleach facial hair, make a "Fabulous Little Dinner" or a "Semi-Fabulous Brunch," just to get some sex. And most would probably have preferred that their daughter not mix up tips on cooking, sewing and decorating "on a budget" with quotes from Alfred Kinsey.

But Helen Gurley Brown, who died on Monday night, didn't listen. The book came out. It sold two million copies in three weeks. And it caused a very big fuss.

Helen Gurley Brown didn't mean to cause a fuss. "It's just a pippy-poo little book," she said, when people like Betty Friedan said they found the book "horrible" and "obscene." But "nobody," Gurley Brown said, "ever got off his high horse long enough to write to single women in any form they could associate with. If they had, somebody else would be the arbiter for single women."

So, for a while, Gurley Brown was. She wrote the book and then commissioned articles, surveys and advice columns in Cosmopolitan, the magazine she edited in New York for 32 years, because she wanted women, and in particular single women, to have more fun. "When I wrote it," she said, "if you didn't have a husband you might as well go to the Grand Canyon and throw yourself in." Helen Gurley Brown didn't want women to go to the Grand Canyon and throw themselves in. She wanted them to have a lot of sex and a lovely time.

She certainly cared how she looked. Like the girls in Sex and the City, which would never have existed without her, she cared a lot about how she looked. She looked, like those girls, as if she thought a lettuce leaf was a treat. Like those girls, but into her eighties, she wore miniskirts and high heels. "One of the paramount reasons for staying attractive," she explained, "is so you can have somebody to go to bed with."

Helen Gurley Brown didn't think, as other people who said they were feminists said they did, that a woman needed a man "like a fish needs a bicycle." She thought that if you were a heterosexual woman who liked sex, you needed a man quite a lot. You didn't need a man to look after you. You didn't need a man to define you. You needed a man because it was less exhausting to have one on standby than to have to catch a new one every time. She met her own husband when she was 37 and looked after him "like a geisha girl." Marriage, she said, was "insurance for the worst years of your life."

Does this sound like a feminist? This woman who asked how any woman could "not be a feminist"? This woman with the taut face, neat nose and heels? Is it possible for a woman who made the whole world talk about the sexual needs of women, and who had millions of men searching for a tiny bump of flesh they'd barely heard of, not to be a feminist? Do all feminists have to look, sound and dress, the same?

Fifty years after the publication of the book that shocked her mother so much, we seem to be talking about how women look more than ever before. Our magazines now have photos of people who are meant to be famous "celebrating their curves" or "looking gaunt," which is just a way of saying they're too fat or too thin. Many of these women are "famous" just because they have appeared on TV shows that have made them famous. Others are famous because they're someone's girlfriend or wife. And if, like Jennifer Aniston, you're famous because of your talent or career, you'll only get in these magazines because you've lost, and are looking miserable because you've lost, a man. You might be enjoying your freedom and also having a lot of lovely sex, but these magazines don't want to know about freedom and lovely sex. They want their readers to know that you're nobody without a man.

They seem to have forgotten, if they ever knew, that most women don't always want to think about how they look or whether they've got a man. You can't just forget it if you're single and want to have sex, because sex is a dance, and how another person looks is part of that dance. But beauty, as Helen Gurley Brown also said, "can't amuse you." It's "brainwork," she said, "reading-writing-thinking," that can.

And it's brainwork that gets you money. "If it does not bring you happiness," she said, "money will at least help you be miserable in comfort." By this, she meant money you earned. In 1962, when most women were dependent on their husband's incomes, this was quite big news. In 2012, when many girls say they want to marry a footballer and be famous for being famous, it still is.

It would be nice if all the people who said things we think are important looked and lived in the way we'd want them to look and live. Helen Gurley Brown worked, for many years, in an office with a leopard print carpet and pink silk walls. At the time of the Clarence Thomas sexual harassment case, she said that sexual attention from men was "almost always flattering." You don't have to be Betty Friedan to think that's a shame.

She wrote a book called Having it All, but she didn't have children and didn't want it "all." She didn't bother with theories. She didn't care about theories. She cared that women got more of what men have always had: more money, more sex and more power. "The only thing that separates successful people from the ones who aren't," she said, "is the willingness to work very, very hard." It isn't always true. Some women work hard and don't get much. So, of course, do some men. But after the fortnight we've just had, we need as many voices as we can find to keep reminding women, men, girls and boys, that if you don't ask, and don't try, you don't get.