"Bad Girls Go Everywhere: The Life of Helen Gurley Brown" is Jennifer Scanlon's lively biography of the author/editor whose "deep-cleavage feminism" propelled her to the top of a publishing empire.
“Bad Girls Go Everywhere: The Life of Helen Gurley Brown”
by Jennifer Scanlon
Oxford University Press, 352 pp., $27.95
As the legendary editor of Cosmopolitan, for a time the most widely read women’s magazine in the world, Helen Gurley Brown promoted a perpetually optimistic and messianic message: Women’s success was measured in both a healthy sex life and bank account.
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While many feminists find it hard to square the magazine and the feminist message, an engaging new biography of Brown, by Jennifer Scanlon, a professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at Bowdoin College, makes a convincing argument otherwise.
In “Bad Girls Go Everywhere: The Life of Helen Gurley Brown,” Scanlon charts Brown’s trajectory and provides a balanced, revealing analysis of her refusal to allow feminism to suppress sensuality during the second wave of women’s liberation advanced by leaders like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem.
Escaping her Arkansas childhood and working secretarial jobs in Los Angeles, Brown was determined to find success while bypassing the 1950s American obsession with early marriage and traditional roles. Unlike Friedan and others, she proposed acting within the existing system rather than rewriting the rules.
This formula would become Brown’s revolutionary book, “Sex and the Single Girl,” an overnight sensation which propelled her into the limelight of the emerging sexual revolution. Writing directly to single, working-class women, the “mouseburgers” with whom she personally identified, Brown rallied them to live “irresistibly, irrepressibly, confidently, enviably single.”
Riding on the book’s success, but with virtually no editorial experience, Brown accepted the position of editor at Cosmopolitan in 1965, where she unapologetically promoted her Cosmo Girl message for the next 32 years. Simply put: Work was vital and made a woman self-reliant, self-reliance made a woman sexy, and sexy fun was a woman’s inherent right.
Brown transformed Cosmopolitan, which incorporated her beloved Cosmo Girl displaying ample cleavage, provocative cover blurbs and an upbeat editorial mix of fiction and features like “Bedside Astrologer.” The publishing world began to see Cosmo as sophisticated and classy in its own indomitable way, readers were thrilled and circulation and advertising soared.
The magazine’s packaging and “deep-cleavage feminism” made it a lightning rod for critics, but Brown staunchly defended femininity as a playful and enjoyable freedom to be celebrated without judgment. Admonishing feminists for dogmatic agendas, she maintained that choice was the ultimate liberation for women, whether with trivial issues like miniskirts or serious ones like abortion rights. Joining her more vocal opponents, she avidly marched and campaigned for her two pet causes, abortion rights and the ERA.
A meticulous editor, and quirky individual, Brown was known for her consuming involvement in every aspect of Cosmopolitan, as well as her thrifty habits, bringing tuna lunches in used yogurt containers and regifting her monogrammed chocolates. In true Cosmo fashion, Brown remained sexually and professionally active into her 80s, surviving breast cancer and stepping down as Cosmo editor in 1996. She continues as the highly paid, editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan International publications, travels frequently and in 2000, published her memoir, “I’m Wild Again.”
“One wonders just how many closet feminist Cosmopolitan readers there were complaining about the system, but working it to their best advantage, enjoying their sexuality and their smarts, and following, more or less, the dictates of Helen Gurley Brown,” writes Scanlon.