"Good girls go to Heaven, but bad girls go everywhere." So said Helen Gurley Brown, longtime editor of Cosmopolitan magazine and author of the bestselling Sex and the Single Girl. And while one can say what one will about Cosmopolitan, few can argue that HGB was not a game changer.
Don't get me wrong: Cosmo will never be mistaken for a bastion of literary sophistication. Indeed, certain types might look down on its not-so-subtle ethos of Empowerment Through Sex Tips. (How many sex tips does an empowered woman really need, after all?) But the thing is -- the thing that feels so obvious to American women in the year 2012 as to be unnecessary to even mention -- is that being empowered sexually is inextricably tied to being empowered, period.
In the New York Times' "99 Ways to Be Naughty in Kazakhstan: How Cosmo Conquered the World," writer Edith Zimmerman explores the "global juggernaut," a phrase which is no exaggeration:
Through those 64 editions, the magazine now spreads wild sex stories to 100 million teens and young women (making it closer to the 12th-largest country [in the world]), actually) in more than 100 nations -- including quite a few where any discussion of sex is taboo.
In fact, Zimmerman says she received an email from the editor of Cosmo India, who wrote:
When we launched in 1996, we were flooded with letters -- women wanted to know if kissing could cause pregnancy. They were clueless about the basics of having sex, and they had a million questions about what was right and wrong. The Cosmo team actually tackled these questions personally -- writing back to readers with answers or carrying stories that tackled their concerns. Indian parents are usually conservative about sexual matters, and friends were often equally ignorant, so Cosmo was the only one with reliable information.
That's pretty wild. And honestly, it's pretty important.
Back in America (and back in the day), the messages HGB heralded were proportionately eye-opening. You don't need a husband to be happy (in fact, she once dropped this doosie: "I think marriage is insurance for the worst years of your life. During your best years you don't need a husband. You do need a man of course every step of the way, and they are often cheaper emotionally and a lot more fun by the dozen"). Your primary fulfillment should come from work. Be self-sufficient. Have sex. (And lots of it! Without shame!) Work hard. Don't depend on a man for anything.
"So you're single. You can still have sex. You can have a great life. And if you marry, don't just sponge off a man or be the gold-medal-winning mother. Don't use men to get what you want in life -- get it for yourself.
And, she championed the "mouseburgers" -- women who didn't come from privilege, pedigree or Princeton. Her book Sex and The Single Girl was published one year before The Feminine Mystique. Something was in the air, and she was a part of it.
And her legacy is clear. While one might no longer embrace her ideas about sleeping with married men (HGB: go for it), anorexia (HGB: a touch of it can be a good thing) or dealing with the boss (HGB: seduce him, then marry him), others have become internalized by our collective, womanly subconscious: namely, that we can have it all.
As we wrote about in Undecided, while women have now reached the point where even that message feels, in some ways, constrictive -- knotted up with pressure and expectations and juggling and the entrenched inequality that remains -- clearly, we're making progress. HGB and countless others had their eyes on the ball (I refuse to make a Cosmo-worthy pun here); it's our job to keep running with it.