A Revolutionary In Stilettos: Cosmo’s Helen Gurley Brown Was A Feminist And A Fashionista

Lipstick and leopard print aren’t feminists’ usual weapons of choice, but the founding editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan always thought differently.

As the original “fun, fearless female,” Helen Gurley Brown lived a topsy-turvy life as a pioneer for women in media—and in the bedroom. A recent biography of Brown, Bad Girls Go Everywhere: The Life of Helen Gurley Brown, by Jennifer Scanlon, argued that Brown is reason that the unmarried, financially stable single woman as we know her exists!

And now Lorraine Candy, former editor of British Cosmo has weighed in to dish about her career alongside don’t-tell-me-what-to-do firebrand. In 1962, Helen Gurley Brown knocked everyone’s socks off when she published the bestselling Sex And The Single Girl. She was lucky enough to be part of the cultural tipping point: the birth control pill was becoming widespread and activists were working to legalize abortion. In our post-“Sex And The City” age, that might not sound like such a big deal, but in the early ’60s (think: Mad Men), Brown showed women they could equate sexual fulfillment with empowerment, consequences be damned.

After the success of her book, Brown took over Cosmopolitian in 1965 and turned the mag into what it (still) is today: big boobs, big hair, big heels. Yeah, not exactly the fundamentals of Feminist Theory 101.

But she always thought feminism shouldn’t be prescriptive; preach “don’t do this, don’t do that” when it came to sex, fashion, careers, or anything else. Women should choose how to have fun and how to be happy, rather than letting societal moods govern how liberated they could be, she believed. And if that meant a woman could give great head, sleep with the boss, or wear a skintight mini—so be it.

You definitely cannot deny Brown’s cultural impact through Cosmo. As Candy put it:

“I think [Brown’s]’s inclusive brand of feminism has outlasted all the others because it is practical, you can use it in daily life. It made women feel comfortable about all aspects of their roles. The myth was that HGB and Cosmopolitan was just about sex – because sex sells and it’s a good business model. But that would be to misunderstand her. In fact, Cosmo was a guilty pleasure for many intellectual women who called them selves feminists.”

All that may be true … but it still doesn’t make some of the unintended side effects of Brown’s gospel hard to swallow.

Shopping, shoes, masturbation, and enjoying oneself are all well and good. Yet it’s difficult to parse apart what’s empowering and what’s just perpetuating stereotypes about which women have worth. There’s something that makes my stomach queasy when I think that I might be listened to more closely by men (at least in person, not online) if I wore red lipstick and batted my eyelashes. How should women feel about the fact that some of us will use sexy outfits, makeup and flirting to get ahead, while others will use hours and hours of labor?

But I will concede, Brown dabbled in political feminist issues, too. She was pro-choice and supported the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, which would guaranteed that equal rights could not be denied on account of gender. She certainly sounds more pleasant to be around than, say, Andrea Dworkin.

Still, the cultural changes Brown brought about —”ORGASM LONGER!” screaming from the cover of a women’s magazine in size 120 font — will always be her legacy. I can’t decide whether I think Cosmopolitan is utter trash, or a guilty pleasure. Can you?

But I can’t help but agree with Candy that Helen Gurley Browned proved feminism didn’t have to be boring.