Helen Gurley Brown's influence on American culture shows how important individuals are in affecting major moral changes.
How do you turn the world upside down? In the span of just five decades, the moral and cultural world has been transformed by the sexual revolution. In terms of both public and private impact, no moral revolution can come close to the importance of the sexual revolution, and none has occurred so quickly. The moral world taken for granted in 1960 has virtually disappeared.
Helen Gurley Brown, who died last week at age 90, was one of the most important, if often underestimated, agents of that revolution.
Moral revolutions do not happen by accident, nor are they orchestrated by a cabal of cultural conspirators. As Kwame Anthony Appiah of Princeton University argued in his 2010 book, The Honor Code, moral revolutions do not emerge instantaneously. In most cases, the basic ideas and claims to knowledge lay dormant for some time. In looking at moral shifts including the end of dueling and the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade, Appiah notes that "a moral revolution has to involve a rapid transformation in moral behavior, not just in moral sentiments."
As his historical examples also make clear, a cultural revolution takes place only when the ideas crystallize and gain traction in the culture, and that requires the leadership of revolutionaries, ready to transform those ideas into a platform for moral transformation. And, as Appiah argues, this must include a change in moral behavior. Does anyone remember the 1960s?
Consider for a moment the moral universe of America in 1960, specifically its sexual morality. Marriage, generally understood as the union of a man and a woman, was considered the mark of adulthood and a bedrock of civilization. A survey published that year in Ladies' Home Journal (cited in Gail Collins's 2009 book, When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present) indicated that "almost all" young women between the ages of 16 and 21 wanted to be married—and fast. Most hoped to be married by age 22, to work until their first pregnancy, and then to be at home with their children. Most indicated a desire for four children. Young men were expected to play their part, settling down for marriage and fatherhood.
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Divorce was difficult, if not impossible to obtain, and it came with a taint of scandal that could doom professional prospects and personal reputation. Premarital sex happened, but it was discouraged. Homosexuality dared not speak its name, and lifestyles pressing for moral legitimacy today were virtually unknown to most Americans. Adultery was not only censured, but often penalized by both law and public condemnation.
Since 1960 we have experienced a moral revolution that has transformed every dimension of American life, and the death of Helen Gurley Brown is a reminder that the sexual revolution did not happen by accident. Like all revolutions, this one required moral revolutionaries.
The revolutionaries of sexual liberation would include some who did not live to see the transformation in full fervor, such as Alfred Kinsey (d. 1956) and Margaret Sanger (d. 1966). But the leading agents of the sexual revolution came from the generation who reached cultural influence just as the movement began to crystallize. This generation would include both Hugh Hefner (b. 1926) and Helen Gurley Brown (b. 1922).
1960 also marked the advent of The Pill. The first authorized prescriptions for the oral contraceptive came that very year, and that one little pill changed the moral landscape, separating sex and reproduction with chemical ease. The Pill was first made available only to married women, but that changed quickly.
When Brown's Sex and the Single Girl hit the bookstores in 1962, it lit a firestorm of controversy. A former advertising writer, then recently married to a leading Hollywood producer, Helen Gurley Brown dared to scandalize the nation, virtually inventing the "single girl" as a cultural category. Brown urged young women to see themselves as empowered by sex, money, and men—but without any need for the traditional commitment to marriage.