Jennifer Scanlon

 

On her book Bad Girls Go Everywhere: The Life of Helen Gurley Brown

Cover Interview of May 29, 2009

In a nutshell

Bad Girls Go Everywhere, in addition to exploring the life experiences of a legendary magazine editor, makes a claim for Helen Gurley Brown’s inclusion in the pantheon of second wave feminists.  This second element, the notion that Brown was a trailblazer for women, is what has made the book so controversial and has journalists and bloggers from Seattle to Ankara talking and quipping in tones celebratory or horrified.  Many appreciate that Brown finally gets her due; others see her as woman on the take rather than a feminist; others simply find her too individualistic, or too over-the-top with her sexual advice or her embrace of beauty culture.  Because she advocated working the system rather than overthrowing it, I argue, she was no less a feminist hero to her legion of followers.

Helen Gurley Brown is best known for two things: the 1962 publication of Sex and the Single Girl, her primer for women who wanted men, money, and sex; and her 32-year editorship of Cosmopolitan magazine.  I argue that she ought also to be known also as a pioneering second-wave feminist.  For one thing, the bestseller book that catapulted Brown to international fame preceded Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique by a year.  For another, Brown deliberately targeted a different audience than did her more well-known feminist peers.  Rather than liberate middle-class housewives from the confines of domesticity, or young college women from the strictures they faced in social movements of the day, Helen Gurley Brown sought to liberate young, working-class, urban, sexy, single women from the postwar dictates of early marriage, sexual repression, and life devoted to home and family.