Helen Gurley Brown, former editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, passed away this week, but her toxic legacy for the American woman lives on.
To put it kindly, she lived a life focused on getting what she wanted by working the system. She was the embodiment of the worst female stereotype as a master manipulator. Her whole life was a stunning example of how the “me” generation flourished. Everything that Gurley Brown wrote in her extraordinarily prolific career as a celebrity author, glamorous New York personality and three-decade editor of Cosmopolitan promoted the idea that women have to look out for themselves, make their own rules and work the system in order to get ahead.
And work the system she did.
In her biography of Gurley Brown, “Bad Girls Go Everywhere,” Jennifer Scanlon describes the unbelievable variety of ways that Gurley Brown manipulated men to get money and gifts and how she used sex to reach her goals. In her signature style — breezy, irreverent, playful, sexy, humorous and confessional — Gurley Brown sold several generations of women on the idea that libertine sexuality is cool and that smart women use sex to move up in the world. Ms. Scanlon describes in fascinating detail the myriad ways that Gurley Brown “evened out” the gaps in male-female income by making men pay for everything.
Gurley Brown’s parsimonious manipulation of her relationships with men is both astounding and appalling for its unapologetic selfishness. After living the sexually liberated life that she advocated for 35 years, Gurley Brown decided she was ready to trade her fading charms for marriage.
Obviously, her days of using sex to get ahead were limited by a nonnegotiable biological imperative that radical feminists still decry, however futile the exercise. To an objective observer, it seems obvious that she also realized — perhaps unconsciously, but given her philosophy and pragmatic approach to her life and career, it was probably a deliberate decision — that she couldn’t make the jump from phenomenally successful executive secretary to member of the upper-crust professional class without marrying someone who bridged that chasm for her. Wealthy film studio executive David Brown was the perfect candidate; she “fell in love with his credentials.” While she knew that he didn’t love her, it was enough that David respected her financial and career accomplishments. She set out on a “lengthy and frustrating” crusade to become his wife.
Brown, whose New York publishing career paved his way to Hollywood, had the pedigree, record of success and literary connections that were necessary for Gurley Brown to reach her ultimate goal. Reading between the lines of Gurley Brown’s life, it is obvious that only marriage to a man like Brown — “charming, smart, and wealthy” — would enable her to move up to the level that she thought was her due. As Ms. Scanlon describes it, the Browns “forged a new path by manipulating rather than negating the old norms of masculinity and femininity.” Their marital bargain was simple: He would “support her, unequivocally, in her professional life, and she in turn would serve him, unequivocally, in their domestic world.” She blatantly argued that “men who help women with their careers are sexier than men with flat stomachs, large biceps, and other remarkable assets.”
Their partnership provided a new challenge for David Brown — overseeing the “planning, writing, editing, marketing, and publication of Helen Gurley Brown’s 1962 smash hit, ‘Sex and the Single Girl’.” The girl who advocated female independence was beholden to a man for the work that became the springboard for her fame and fortune. For Gurley Brown, the marriage led to an international platform to promote her fantasy of free sex and her image as the successful career women in total control of her life and future. More important, it gave her a way to get out of the advertising ghetto and into the high-powered New York publishing world.
Granted, Helen Gurley Brown had the talent and style to write a book as phenomenally successful as “Sex and the Single Girl,” but she probably could never have reached the status of a best-selling celebrity author without the very active involvement of David Brown, whose experience and connections gave him the requisite blend of Hollywood glitter and New York publishing savvy.
In 1964, a reporter asked Gurley Brown whether she had changed her mind and decided that “a woman’s priority in life should be to please the man in her life.” Gurley Brown responded that “pleasing your man” is merely being “self-serving” because pleasing a man enables you to get the man and have a happier time and a better marriage. “Man pleasing,” she answered in the interview, “has to do with keeping your relationship desirable and happy, it also has to do with getting a man to commit to you if he hasn’t yet done so.”
How ironic that the queen of sexual liberation ended up in a marriage where both she and her husband were committed to fidelity. It is doubly so that a woman who built her career on warning other women to avoid needing a man ends up realizing that her own happiness depends on getting a certain man to marry her and then making that husband happy. To further compound the irony, Gurley Brown, who wrote extensively about the importance of a woman controlling her own destiny, recognizes her dependence upon her husband for her professional success, just as he comes to realize his dependence upon her for his personal well-being.
More than her passing, we mourn the terrible legacy that Gurley Brown has left behind. Millions of young women have bought into the carefully crafted myth that Helen Gurley and David Brown sold so successfully, promoted so vigorously and found so financially lucrative. (In her retirement, Gurley Brown was receiving a $2 million annual stipend from Cosmo.)
Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that there are 19 million sexually transmitted infections each year — almost half in people ages 15 to 24. The CDC also reports that more than 65 million people in the United States are living with an incurable sexually transmitted disease (STD). When Gurley Brown started promoting her brand of sexual liberation, there were three STDs. Now, according to a report from my colleague Brenda Zurita at Concerned Women for America, there are 49. The Allan Gutmacher Institute reports more than 1.2 million annual abortions and that from 1973 through 2008, nearly 50 million legal abortions occurred in the United States.
American women are paying a very high price for living the “Cosmo” lifestyle.
Janice Shaw Crouse is senior fellow at Concerned Women for America’s Beverly LaHaye Institute and author of “Marriage Matters” (Transaction Publishers, 2012).