The Working Girl’s Feminist: Helen Gurley Brown Dies at 90

In Fresh Lipstick, I argued that three identifiable social subgroups of feminism grew up in America during the 20th century.  By the time of the Second Wave in the 1970s, these were clearly delineated by philosophies, adherents, spokeswomen, and issues, as well as styles of dress.

There were the intellectuals, who had been known as the “scholastic suffragists” in the First Wave.  This group, well educated and well heeled, focused on relatively abstract issues, like legal rights and language about women.  Simone de Beauvoir was their leading inspiration, The Second Sex their Bible.  In the 1970s, they wore jeans and T-shirts, long hair, no makeup.  Later, they would wear all black and African earrings.

The second group had been the backbone of the suffrage movement, but their concerns were broad, encompassing a range of social issues and showing a clear community activist ethos.  These middle class feminists, often called “clubwomen” in the early 1900s, were respectable and often married.  Having been led earlier in the century by Carrie Chapman Catt, their viewpoint was the one most closely articulated by Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.  These ladies had their frosted hair done once a week.

The third stream was made up of “working girls”–a clearly understood term through most of the 20th century.  This was the social subgroup who been the “gold-diggers” of the 1920s.  Some were chorus girls, some shopgirls, and some secretaries.  All were seen as seductresses who would steal the wives of respectable clubwomen. By the 1950s, however, “working girls” were single women who held all kinds of jobs, but stereotypically worked mostly as secretaries and especially alongside the men who were married to respectable middle class wives.  “Working girl” was the identity of Barbie when she appeared in 1959, with her side-long glance, big breasts, designer clothes, and multiple careers.

Helen Gurley Brown spoke for this group in the unlikely venues of Sex and the Single Girl and Cosmopolitan. Her message was essentially this: what every girl needs is a good career and superlative sex.  (Who can argue with that?) Brown emphatically did not feel women should have sex only with husbands–and, worse, she unabashedly said it was ok for single women to have sex with other women’s husbands.

Helen Gurley Brown advocated on behalf of working girls, advised them, scolded them, and inspired them in a light, provocative, sometimes flippant voice. Her mission was to advise “working girls” how to get ahead in their jobs and get satisfaction in their beds.  Underneath, however, was an insistence on equal rights, in employment and reproduction.  And these had been the core issues for working women through most of the 20th century.

Brown was easily parodied and often offensive to the more “respectable” members of the movement.  In the 1970s, she was frequently brought into mainstream media as a spokeperson for feminism (yes! it is true!) and then was often hugely insulting to housewives in what she said.  But so was Gloria Steinem.

Academic feminism has softened slightly since I published Fresh Lipstick. But in the last years of the 1990s, intellectual feminists took it upon themselves to police movement membership, arrogantly declaring who was and who was not a true feminist.  To suggest that Helen Gurley Brown was a feminist was, to them, heresy.

Yet the obituaries populating the web right now do tend to make that point.  Today we understand that reproductive rights, as well as freedom to pursue both achievement and pleasure to the same degree as men, are basic to the feminist agenda.  Her message is now repackaged through international Cosmopolitan all over the world, but still hews to the basic formula.

In the US, though, Brown’s contribution speaks of a time and a way of life that is now gone–the era of  Mad Men.  We should nevertheless recognize her passing as one of the important figures in the twentieth century struggle.

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