June 10, 2009
The American Philosophical Society, Oxford University Press and Smith College seem far removed from the mass appeal of Cosmopolitan, the trashy women’s magazine that glorifies sex, career and the unremittingly plunging neckline.
But, in a world in which discriminating taste is non-discriminating, whatever is popular must be good. Oxford, you see, is the publisher of Jennifer Scanlon’s recently-released Bad Girls Go Everywhere, the biography of Cosmo’s former editor, the jet-setting Helen Gurley Brown, famous for saying “Good girls go to heaven; bad girls go everywhere.” The philosophical society provided research funding to Scanlon, a professor at Bowdoin College. She did her historical digging among the treasured Helen Gurley Brown Papers at Smith.
These estimable archives must include at least some of Cosmo’s vast stores of semi-pornographic cover photos, as well as precious manuscripts of Sex and the Single Girl, Brown’s best-selling 1962 book that helped single women adjust to a life of promiscuity and raw ambition, paving the way for Carrie Bradshaw. In the book, Brown called the housewife and mother a “parasite, a dependent, a scrounger, a sponger … a bum.”
Brown grew up poor in Arkansas, a fact which apparently excuses naked ambition and greed. For a time, it seemed the young girl was destined to a life of what Scanlon calls “gender conformity.” Instead, she discovered the stupendously fulfilling vistas of the workaholic office drudge and passed on her enthusiasm for being single and carefree.
Scanlon includes interesting insights into the period of Brown’s ascendancy, a time when women’s magazines and the mass media generally romanticized and approved of domesticity in women. In 1956, Life magazine, in a special report on women, warned against careerism. “The Single Career Woman … may find satisfaction in her job. But the chances are that she will suffer psychological damage. Should she marry and reproduce her husband and children will be profoundly unhappy.” A Gallup poll for Ladies Home Journal showed women overwhelmingly endorsed the ideal of withholding sex until marriage.
Brown claimed the single life was superior to married life in many ways. For one, it offered more varied and fulfilling opportunities for sex. There was no reason women shouldn’t indulge in free love, said Brown. She would later add that any society that upheld pre-marital chastity in women could only be “a totalitarian state.”
The single life also provided the sacred satisfaction of career, “your happy pill, your means of finding out who you are and what you can do, your playpen, your family, your entrée to a good social life, men and money, the most reliable escape from loneliness, and your means of participating.” Millions of women now lead lives of childlessness or single parenthood. How many have experienced the sexual highs or lucrative salaries Brown promised would be their compensation for domestic loneliness? As the feminist writer Vivien Gornick has lamented:
Who could ever have dreamed there would be so many of us floating around, those of us between thirty-five and fifty-five who live alone. Thirty years of politics in the street opened a door that became a floodgate, and we have poured through in our monumental numbers, in possession of the most educated discontent in history.
Scanlon credits Brown’s later book Sex and the Office with bringing about “more honest and open discussion of female sexuality.” The book advises working women on, among other things, how to accept offers from married men and initially included scenes of office rape and lesbian sex. The West German goverment sued Cosmo for publishing excerpts, calling them “youth-endangering literature.” Brown is similar to many feminist ideologues in her belief that female sexuality was first discovered in the 1960’s. For thousands of years, women had lived in a state of tragic ignorance that belies the biological results.
Scanlon describes Brown as a “second-wave feminist,” distinguishing her from the first- and third-wave varieties. She does not mention that the nineteenth century’s so-called first-wave feminists wanted to protect women and children from the predations of the commercial world and would have been appalled by today’s glorification of female independence. They believed the commercializing of home would lead to neglect of children and a precipitous decline in domestic harmony. They were right. In maritime terminology, feminism since the 1960’s has been more tsunami than ordinary wave.
Brown at least recognized femininity as distinct from masculinity, as anyone who has marveled over the navels of the women on Cosmo’s covers well knows. In this, and in her wholesome insistence that women not feel sorry for themselves, she was opposed to mainstream feminists, who despised the normal feminine preoccupation with looks and loved a pity party. But, Brown, an ardent champion of abortion, comes off well only in contrast.
The Cosmo world lives on. If you despair for tomorrow, rest assured doctoral candidates will be trolling through the Helen Gurley Brown Papers for years to come and perhaps vying for the Helen Gurley Brown Research Professorship at Northwestern University. The Cosmo look is also destined for a long self life. Just walk into any third-grade classroom and you will find Girlie Brown knock-offs dressed like miniature hookers.
For occasional moments of sexual splendiferous-ness and the tedium of lifelong ambition, women have traded the good life, not just for themselves, but for those they might love. Brown and many others have profited handsomely from their choice.