Helen Gurley Brown, the author of the women's sexual liberation movement has died. Here is her obituary in the New York Times.
Brown wrote for Single girls. She was very funny. She loved her husband. Other than that, she was my exact opposite.
Sex and the Single Girl was published in 1962, which is slightly ahead of my chosen Year It All Went Wrong, which is 1963. It had very sensible things to say about working hard to advance in the work world. It had harmful things to say about sexuality. For example, Brown encouraged women to shrug off the immorality of affairs with married men. In her view, the fault was entirely that of the adulterous married man, and if you weren't having an affair with him, somebody else would, so why not just enjoy him?
As editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, Helen Gurley Brown sold women a revolution that was half fantasy: just use protection, girls, and nobody will get hurt. When I was growing up, she was still at the helm, and her magazine always featured a heavily-made up model with big hair and her cleavage slashed to her belly-button. The articles, I gathered, were complete trash, and reading Cosmo had to be a serious sin.
Thus, I don't think I have opened more than three or four copies of Cosmopolitan in my entire life. The one article I remember reading was about how to have an adulterous affair and get away with it. I have forgotten all details except to check that your jealous lover is not deliberately leaving evidence for your husband to find. Heavens. That is just so wrong on so many levels.
I do not think badly of Helen Gurley Brown although of course I think her philosophy was terribly dangerous and indeed responsible for a litany of miseries: the proliferation of sexual diseases in girls and women; many premature deaths due to cervical cancer; the staggering number of abortions performed every year; the as-yet-unknown effects of mass use of the birth control pill; damage to health due to breast implants and other cosmetic surgeries; the erosion of marriage; the unhappiness of children; the death of modesty; the ruin of souls.
I do not think badly of her because I don't think she knew that's what would happen. I have read both Sex & the Single Girl and Sex & the Office, and I gathered that she really, truly, honestly wanted to improve women's lives. Well, maybe not the lives of stay-at-home (so to speak--they also ran a lot of errands and did volunteer work) wives who husbands might fall into the beds of Cosmo girls, but she certainly cared about her readers. And she perhaps correctly divined that what her readers wanted more than anything was to catch a man, to have interesting work, to have an income and to not feel guilty. And Helen thought the key to all this was sex.
Sex is, of course, one of the reigning idols of our time. It is a religion, and it is almost the state religion of both the UK and the USA. As the Scottish government is willing to ignore the 67% of those Scots who wrote in to plead for the traditional definition of marriage and the American government is willing to trample the religious rights of Catholic employers to make them pay for abortifacients and artificial contraceptives, I think I am justified in saying that.
At any rate, Helen was a true believer in Sex as God, the giver of all good things. She was wrong, just as wrong as anyone thinks that nuclear power is God, the giver of all things.
But she was funny and engaging and hardworking and darned successful in her publishing and writing careers. I never sneeze at book sales, and Sex and the Single Girl sold two million copies in three weeks. As a writer she caught the interest of a mass readership, and that is the business we writers are all in. It's such a shame she was fighting under the wrong standard. Kyrie eleison.
I think it was wrong for the NYT to make those cheap shots about her cosmetic surgeries. I bet the NYT won't mention Gloria Steinem's cosmetic surgery when she dies. But I suppose it points to the fact that although Helen Gurley Brown helped to transform women's lives, she also cheapened them.