Helen Gurley Brown, who died this week at 90, embodied countless contradictions. In her first book, “Sex and the Single Girl” (1962), Brown scandalized the nation by arguing that single women ought to have lives of sexual fulfillment rather than of spinster desperation. Notably, she waited to do this until she had safely nabbed her own Mr. Right, and then wrote the book only at his urging.
She advised women to use their feminine wiles in the work place (though she always contended that sleeping your way to the top was all but impossible). She steered the failing Hearst publication Cosmopolitan far into the black, and into pop culture history, by eliminating all traces of cosmopolitanism and recasting the magazine as a guidebook for what became known as the “Cosmo girl.”
Her success -- and that of her magazine -- resulted both from a deep understanding of bare economic necessity and from the skilled deployment of what the sociologist Catherine Hakim has called “erotic capital.”
Brown’s style of fishnet feminism caught the public imagination in the early 1960s, well before the stories of the bra-burning variety had even hit the newsstands. And while other pioneers of American feminism, such as Betty Friedan, sought self-fulfillment and social change, individual economic success was the first order of business for Brown.
Circumstances had conspired to render the young Helen Gurley poor. Her father died when she was 10, her mother sank into depression and her sister was stricken with polio. For a girl from Arkansas transplanted to Los Angeles, the specter of rural white trash nipped at her heels even as her mother and sister leaned on her for support. And for a just-barely college-educated single girl in the 1940s, economic opportunities were limited: One could trade in secretarial services or sexual favors.
Brown, by her own account, engaged in a bit of both. Her autobiography, “I’m Wild Again,” recounts her days not only in the secretarial pool on the way to her position as an advertising writer, but also her time as a mistress to an unnamed Hollywood heavy hitter.
For women of the working class, “workin’ it” has long been a route to economic security. Brown’s hard-won (that is, arduously constructed) sex appeal got her that and more: A decades-long marriage to film producer David Brown, bestselling books, the editorial helm of a Hearst publication and a Central Park West penthouse.
While Brown was working her way up and out of the secretarial pool, half a world away the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir was writing “The Second Sex,” which famously noted that “one is not born a woman, one becomes one,” and that “women’s freedom begins with their pocket book.”
Brown would have agreed on both counts: Femininity was artifice, and money mattered.
Indeed, she embodied these principles, and turned them into a formula for the Cosmo girls who would follow her monthly missives. Brown was utterly self-made: nipped, tucked, exercised, dieted and coiffed into a made-up and made-over version of feminine masquerade. She parlayed it into an empire, working out the details of her can-do, chin-up, bust-out, and just-enough-brains pragmatism in the pages of her magazine: “Land your man, ace your job and look your sexiest ever,” was the classic mantra.
Doing It All
By 1982, Brown had compiled it all in a second bestseller. In “Having It All,” she suggested that women like herself, “who are not prepossessing, not pretty, don’t have a particularly high I.Q., a decent education, good family background or other noticeable assets can come a long way in life if they apply themselves.” For Brown, work on the self was the way to wealth, and work she did. The key to having it all was doing it all.
She urged her readers to work with what they’ve got, and especially to maximize their erotic capital -- the beauty, sex appeal, social grace, vivaciousness and sexual competence that have long operated as assets for women (or liabilities for those who lack them). More Moll Flanders than Madame Bovary, Brown didn’t shy from the bare economics of erotic capital: For people who have only their labor and their bodies to sell, trading on both makes for a far more certain return.
Brown’s Manolo Blahnik version of bootstrapping found an eager audience among working women who were ready to embrace her advice on sex (yes, please), work (go the extra mile), men (so easy to handle), children (if you must), and money (get it, keep it, grow it). Under her editorship, Cosmopolitan became the guidebook for working women who aimed to amp up their erotic capital in a world that had often dismissed them as bimbos at best.
Brown often wrote that she planned on being buried in her favorite Emilio Pucci shift. If that wasn’t feasible, she said she would settle for a Chanel suit. I hope she wound up in the Chanel. It seems fitting: She and Coco Chanel, the founder of the brand, each started out as kept women and wound up at the helm of lifestyle empires.
In the process they put to rest the specter of the lonely spinster, and revamped our ideas of modern womanhood.
(Micki McGee is the author of “Self-Help, Inc: Makeover Culture in American Life.” She teaches in the department of sociology and anthropology at Fordham University. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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