Feminism, you’d think, needs Helen Gurley Brown like a fish needs a bicycle. In 1970, feminists staged a sit-in at Cosmopolitan magazine — its cover famed for “man-pleasing!” taglines and necklines — demanding that editor-in-chief Brown use her glossy platform to advocate for women’s liberation. Brown’s response? To defend her magazine as “already feminist,” writes women’s studies prof Jennifer Scanlon in Bad Girls Go Everywhere: The Life of Helen Gurley Brown. Indeed, Scanlon posits Brown — convincingly — as a provocative pioneer of feminism’s second wave: Brown’s version, “more likely practiced by single women than by housewives, and by working-class secretaries than middle-class college students, has largely been left out of established histories of postwar feminism’s emergence and ascendance.” Brown, for starters, did use her platform to support the ERA, abortion rights, and contraception (and tried, unsuccessfully, to make her writing lesbian-friendly). Her feminism — its bible: Brown’s blockbuster Sex and the Single Girl — was not a vision of matriarchal utopia but a clear-eyed, if eyelash-batting, look at 1960s reality and its hostility to “career” and single women. Brown was “messianic” about work — not men — as the source of women’s fulfillment, if not survival. Rather than overturn the sexist system, Brown said, work it. Cleavage at the office? Let’s face it: that’s how you keep your job. Unlike Cosmo, Bad Girls is not a breezy read, but it’s a well-researched corrective that puts “lipstick feminism” in its proper, valuable — and colorful — place in modern women’s history.
About the Writer
Lynn Harris is an author, essayist, commentator, and award-winning journalist. Her most recent book is the satirical novel Death by Chick Lit. A former stand-up comic, she lives in Brooklyn.