The Soapbox: Where Helen Gurley Brown Got Feminism Wrong

When Helen Gurley Brown passed away earlier this week at the age of 90, female journalists and writers came out en masse to laud Brown for her contributions to the sexual liberation of women and heralded her a feminist icon.

It’s true that Brown’s incredible 32-year reign at Cosmopolitan marked a sea change for women’s publications, offering a fresh, sexually liberated image of women “having it all” (which in Brown’s world meant sex, money and power). Brown wanted women to harness their femininity to get ahead, and many took to her female-forward, pro-sex message. But let’s not pretend Helen Gurley Brown’s “stiletto feminism” — to borrow a phrase from Washington Post writer Kathleen Parker — wasn’t also problematic.

“How could any woman not be a feminist? The girl I’m editing for wants to be known for herself. If that’s not a feminist message, I don’t know what is,” she asserted. That Brown was a feminist is true — and she should be celebrated for proudly proclaiming her allegiance. But Brown’s feminism was largely the feminism of self-determination, one pushing against outdated Victorian mores about sex and sexuality. Certainly feminism is a multilayered, multi-pronged construct, and there’s room for lesbian separatists, radical gender re-definers and Helen Gurley Brown under one tent.

But HGB’s feminism traded largely on negative stereotypes of women — women as cunning, manipulative temptresses. Why not use your sexuality to get ahead in the workplace, she argued? “If you’re not a sex object, you’re in trouble,” she famously said. For Brown, women’s power and status was inexorably linked to sex appeal. In her purview, sexuality was women’s currency in the marketplace.  What happens though, to those women who are aged out, sexed out, or otherwise deemed unsavory (like, say, women of color, overweight women, or non-heterosexual women)? A liberation tied solely to a woman’s value in the sexual marketplace seems like no liberation at all.

It seems a rather skewed interpretation of “the personal as political.”

So while it’s true that HGB and Cosmo mag did offer a new, more sexually free image for women to emulate, she also promoted a rather proscribed vision of what a woman — and a feminist — could be. In Helen’s world, women were supposed to be “fun and fearless,” interested in sex, sexuality and enhancing their personal power. All of those things are well and good, but Helen’s vision was a soft, feminine, de-politicized version of womanhood — a nonthreatening image meant to placate and please men as much as it aimed to “liberate” women. And while Cosmo provided women with articles on the latest sex moves and enticed them with guides to “what he’s really thinking,” the sad reality of life on the ground for many women still lurched on.

This is at the crux of the problem with Helen Gurley Brown: her feminism was oriented around a rather limited — not to mention heteronormative — notion of women. Brown was inspired by the capitalist dogma of “getting ahead” and “having it all.”  Rather than break actual barriers for women by presenting alternatives to the mainstream, Brown happily argued that women should simply “man up” and play the game.

For Brown, playing the game meant filling Cosmo’s pages with hyper-sexualized imagery of thin, mostly white women under the guise of “independence.” For many woman, there’s something — like sense of self and self-worth — that’s simply lost in that translation. In fact many of feminism’s successes — especially along the lines of challenging gender normativity — happened in spite of, not because of, Helen Gurley Brown and her ilk.

Helen Gurley Brown was an astute businesswoman with an easy-to-swallow notion of sexualized, palatable feminism. We can’t fault her for offering a solution that simply reflected the social mores of the times, but we certainly shouldn’t laud her blindly either.