Was Helen Gurley Brown a Feminist?

Helen Gurley Brown

Helen Gurley Brown(Susan Wood/Getty Images)

Helen Gurley Brown, editor of Cosmopolitan magazine for more than three decades, died Monday at the age of 90. Credited with changing the look and content of not just her own magazine but also most women’s magazines, she was both revered and reviled as a feminist.

Brown first made a name for herself in 1962 when she published the book “Sex and the Single Girl” in which she encouraged women to be independent both sexually and financially. Later, when she was asked by Hearst to take the helm at the then floundering Cosmopolitan magazine, she continued to deliver that same message. As Margalit Fox wrote in the New York Times, Brown “did not so much revamp the magazine as vamp it.” Cosmopolitan was known for featuring voluptuous models on the cover alongside attention-grabbing headlines about sex and what men want. What was seen as clever marketing and daring copy in the 60s, 70s and perhaps 80s, is now criticized as exploitative and harmful as women are constantly bombarded by Photoshopped images of dangerously thin models and an unattainable promise of the perfect body and life.

Brown also created the Cosmo Girl persona  – a woman in charge of her life, her beauty, her sexuality, her career. Many women aspired to be that woman as they pursued careers and sexual relationships for the first time. As girls grew up and stopped playing with their Barbie dolls, they picked up Cosmopolitan to learn how to get Barbie’s life.

Critics thought the Cosmo Girl concept was contrary to the feminist movement which was gaining traction at the same time the magazine was. Stuart Elliot reported in a 1993 New York Times article, “Still, since the 1970’s, complaints about Cosmopolitan and Ms. Brown, who remains editor in chief, have intensified, particularly from feminists who charge that its contents contradict and undermine the goals of the women’s movement. They despise the word “girl’ and what they contend is the magazine’s insistence on cheerfully urging readers to use sex as a tool or a weapon.”

Brown had a different perspective. According to the New Yorker’s Erin Overbey, Brown once referred to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as a Cosmo Girl and wondered, “How could any woman not be a feminist?” According to Overbey, Brown said, “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.”

For every feminist criticism of Brown (she scoffed at Anita Hill’s testimony about sexual harassment during Justice Clarence Thomas’ appointment hearing), there is an equal amount of praise (she was a supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion rights.)

So was Helen Gurley Brown a feminist? We don’t buy into the idea that all things “empowering” are feminist and once wrote,  “Female empowerment” has been co-opted by marketers trying to hawk cosmetics, pushup bras and 4 inch heels and by those who profit from scantily clad women dancing on bars. But you know what this female finds empowering? Earning a living, getting a fair wage for my work, supporting women-friendly candidates, and mentoring other women.” History can’t easily or accurately place Brown in once space or the other. Like most women today, her take on the world was nuanced and imperfect, meeting, dare we say, somewhere at the intersection of feminism and life.

In a 2009 Guardian article Jennifer Scanlon wrote about Brown, “Critics point out that she peddled cleavage on every month’s cover of Cosmo, suggested that women should work the system rather than overthrow it, and even saw her offices taken over by protesting feminists. Yet to me Brown deserves a place in the pantheon of 20th-century feminist leaders. She was not just an infamous promoter of women’s sexual liberation, she was a working-class woman’s role model who declared herself, her magazine and her message feminist.”

Ladies, what do you think?

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