Why Helen Gurley Brown Mattered

Late Cosmopolitan editor stood up for the single girl long before Carrie Bradshaw.

The world lost a true trailblazer Monday (August 13) with the death of author, publisher and businesswoman Helen Gurley Brown. The longtime Cosmopolitan editor was 90 years old and left behind a lasting legacy on the publishing industry via her mantra that women could have it all — love, sex and money — a groundbreaking and controversial ideology she introduced in her 1962 book “Sex and the Single Girl” and expanded upon monthly when she arrived at Cosmopolitan in 1965.

What struck me most about the news is not necessarily Gurley’s passing — a quick perusal of her résumé reflects a woman who lived her life to the fullest — but that too many people, women in particular, have no idea who Gurley was, i.e. the following exchange I had earlier in our office:

Me: “Oh no! Helen Gurley Brown died.”

Female co-worker: “Who?”

Who, indeed. The woman’s impact on pop culture and women’s magazines is a profound one. No matter how you feel about the evolution of Cosmopolitan and the idea of being a “Cosmo Girl,” both hot topics in their own right, Brown inspired those conversations. With the publication of “Sex and the Single Girl” and her editorial role at Cosmo, from 1965 to 1997, Brown thrust the taboo topic of sex, and the idea that single women had and enjoyed it, into the mainstream decades before Carrie Bradshaw and her friends on “Sex and the City.” She introduced honest conversations about sex and sexual health into women’s magazines.

While Brown received plenty of criticism for her pioneering, particularly over the emphasis she placed on the hot-button feminist issue of living up to impossible standards of beauty, i.e. looking your best and the importance of being a sex object, she paired that philosophy with the empowering idea that women were as equipped as men to go after what they wanted in life.

“The message was: 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,” Brown once said. “Don’t use men to get what you want in life — get it for yourself.”

And then of course she also promoted the idea that while women can be as successful as they want to be, they also “just want to have fun.”

Cosmo is feminist in that we believe women are just as smart and capable as men and can achieve anything they want. But it also acknowledges that while work is important, men are, too. The Cosmo girl absolutely loves men!”

Again, no matter what you think of how the “Sex and the Single Girl” conversation has evolved, devolved, progressed or stalled, the point is that Brown got us talking, and we’ll keep doing so for decades to come.