Anna Breslaw’s 600-Word Sprint: Good Night, ‘Cosmo’ Girl

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The death of Helen Gurley Brown on Monday has loaded another round into the chamber of the following never-ending feminist debate: Were the accomplishments of the long-time Cosmopolitan editor and Sex and the Single Girl author positive or detrimental to gender equality?

A self-described feminist, Brown’s brand of women’s lib—called “stiletto feminism” by some today—was one that provided a sharp contrast to, say, Gloria Steinem’s. The best way to describe Brown’s feminism for a layman is Mad Men’s Joan, Season 1: Men will be men, and it’s in a woman’s best interest to slip on a wiggle dress and work her femininity to her advantage (and for fun).

And Sex and the Single Girl reads like early episodes of Sex and the City, the ones where Carrie breaks the fourth wall and addresses the viewer: “The Everygirl’s Guide to Having an Affair.” “The Everygirl’s Guide to Decorating Your Studio Apartment.” The Everygirl’s et cetera.

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That said, who better to sum up Cosmopolitan than the original Cosmo girl? Here's Brown with the magazine’s mission statement:

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

Under Brown’s 32-year reign as the mag’s editor-in-chief, it transformed from a staid women’s magazine featuring wholesome cover stars in high necks to the racy hen party guidebook available at checkout counters today: “The Hottest Places to Have Sex.” “9 Random Places Your Man Wants to Be Touched.”

Cosmo advanced the idea of “do-me” feminism—the assumption that if women use their sexuality for advancement in other areas of their life, equality was sure to follow.

“If you’re not a sex object,” Brown controversially said, “you’re in trouble.”

While maintaining that she was a feminist, Brown also made it clear that she was a realist, and many of the headlines in Cosmo are as palatable for the patriarchy as they are for its sexually active female audience: Many of them delve into “what he’s thinking,” “how to please him,” and the promise of obscure male sex secrets exposed.

While this is all fact, there are two important items to keep in mind when discussing the legacy of Brown and Cosmo. Firstly, context: While certain elements of Brown’s lifestyle dictum may seem outdated or exploitative today, they were a radically rebellious and forward-thinking counterargument to the prudish, Victorian attitude that came before.

The second is that Brown was speaking for a different demographic of women than her peers Steinem and Friedan. While Steinem spoke for the young, bright, college-educated liberals and Friedan for the stifled housewives, Brown was doling out advice for the women she knew (and used to be): A single woman with little education other than a certificate of graduation from secretarial school and the lessons a secretary working between 1950 and 1960 generally learned the hard way about workplace harassment.

No wonder she felt that she needed a foothold: Even as a kid growing up poor in the Ozarks, the young Brown invented an unflattering portmanteau for herself, according to her obit in the New York Times:

[mouseburger, n., pejorative, < mouse + -burger. A physically unprepossessing woman with little money and few prospects. Cf. milquetoast, said of men.]

So, did Brown’s views perhaps cause the evolution to what her feminist successor, the writer Ariel Levy, now calls “raunch culture?” As in: Today’s women conforming to chauvinistic standards under the guise of female sexual empowerment?

Frankly, after so many waves in the feminist movement that the tide is higher than Blondie’s hit single, it’s impossible to evaluate cause/effect as such, or blame any one woman’s contribution to the feminist sphere for some negative side effects 50 years down the line. As Brown put it in what is arguably her most famous quote, “Good girls go to heaven; bad girls go everywhere.”

Is there a modern-day equivalent to Helen Gurley Brown? Discuss your candidates in COMMENTS.

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Anna Breslaw is a regular contributor to Jezebel, New York magazine’s Vulture and Glamour, and her writing has been featured elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn. Email Anna | Anna’s Tumblr