Woman who put sex and the sin­gle girl into Cosmo

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS - Brooke Hauser Harper, £16.99 Re­view by Re­becca McQuil­lan

IN SPRING 1965, a reed-thin 43-yearold in de­signer clothes walked into the New York of­fice of a strug­gling mag­a­zine to take over its ed­i­tor­ship. She had never edited any­thing be­fore and had landed the job through af­ter pub­lish­ing a con­tro­ver­sial best­selling book, Sex and the Sin­gle Girl.

Within six months, she had boosted sales to a mil­lion. She aimed it at young sin­gle women. She put semi-nude girls on the cover, banned long words and, above all, talked about sex, sex, sex. Her name was He­len Gur­ley Brown and the mag­a­zine was Cos­mopoli­tan.

En­ter He­len at­tempts to tell the story of the real Brown and her rise from sec­re­tary to cham­pion of the sin­gle gal. The woman who emerges is fo­cused and bold in chal­leng­ing prej­u­dices about sin­gle women, but also at times mer­ce­nary and ma­nip­u­la­tive; shrewd while also seem­ing in some ways wildly lack­ing in in­sight.

He­len Gur­ley was from a mod­est back­ground and be­came a sec­re­tary in an ad­ver­tis­ing agency in the 1950s, but then moved up to be a copy­writer.

In this re­spect, she was a pi­o­neer, like Peggy Olson in Mad Men, but Peggy would have been dis­mayed by Brown’s will­ing­ness to sleep with men to get ahead. The ve­nal­ity of be­com­ing a rich busi­ness­man’s mis­tress to milk him for money did not seem to faze Brown. She ap­proached her men like a spy ap­proaches his tar­get: with pa­tience and a cool head. That was how she landed her wealthy well-con­nected hus­band, movie pro­ducer David Brown, though theirs proved to be a mar­riage of equals.

Was He­len Gur­ley Brown a fem­i­nist? Much later she did de­fine her­self as such, but to mod­ern sen­si­bil­i­ties, her lib­er­ated at­ti­tude to sex seemed to meld with the in­stincts of a Sur­ren­dered Wife.

On the one hand, her 1962 book Sex and the Sin­gle Girl was a land­mark pub­li­ca­tion that ar­gued a woman had as much right to a sex life out­side mar­riage as a man. It cel­e­brated a girl’s choice to live alone and in­cluded chap­ters on ca­reers and sav­ing money. Yet at the same time, the woman she de­scribed was ob­sessed with be­ing pleas­ing to men. It gave ad­vice on where to find men, hav­ing af­fairs with mar­ried men, in­formed women that it was the man’s role to pay for most things, and urged them to con­sider voice train­ing if their fem­i­nine vo­cals were in­suf­fi­ciently sexy.

The irony about Sex and the Sin­gle Girl was that Brown wrote it once mar­ried; in­deed, the whole project had been her hus­band’s idea.

As Cosmo’s ed­i­tor, she re­lated to women with hang-ups, but fu­elled those in­se­cu­ri­ties with ar­ti­cles ob­sess­ing about hair, make-up and cos­metic pro­ce­dures.

In the late 1960s, she pub­lished a painfully mis­judged ar­ti­cle ex­tolling the glam­orous side of Saigon, no less – “COULD YOU WORK IN VIET­NAM?”– the idea be­ing, of course, that there was no bet­ter place to meet men. Other ar­ti­cles in­cluded “Why I wear my false eye­lashes to bed” and “How not to be dumped on his way up”.

But it is only fair to see Brown in the con­text of her time. She had been a sin­gle woman in the op­pres­sively chau­vin­ist 1940s and 50s, when many a clever woman ad­vanced by ma­nip­u­lat­ing men; by the late 60s, fem­i­nists were try­ing to free women from be­ing de­fined by sex. The fem­i­nist Betty Friedan was one with­er­ing critic. Glo­ria Steinem de­fended Cosmo for pro­claim­ing women’s right to a sex life, but her re­la­tion­ship with the older Brown was like that of an ex­as­per­ated par­ent with a way­ward child who lacks self-aware­ness.

And yet in some re­spects Brown shared the goals of Women’s Lib­er­a­tion, such as ad­vanc­ing abor­tion rights. In 1970, she wrote an ed­i­tor’s let­ter en­dors­ing the fem­i­nist move­ment.

A di­rect line can be traced from He­len Gur­ley Brown to Brid­get Jones and Sex and the City: gen­er­a­tions of women ob­sessed with be­ing sexy and plagued with in­se­cu­ri­ties. In­deed, the par­al­lel with the fic­tional Jones is strik­ing: Brown reg­u­larly took her mea­sure­ments and listed what she ate. Her 1973 New Year’s res­o­lu­tion was “Re­lax chin, stay at 105lbs…”

She is an un­com­fort­able icon for the mod­ern fem­i­nist, but as this il­lu­mi­nat­ing book makes clear, the western world would per­haps look rather dif­fer­ent for women had she never put pen to pa­per.

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