Sex and the Married Man

How Helen Gurley Brown inspired a generation of home-wreckers, and brought down John Edwards
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Marc Yankus

She’s 87, still kicking, and almost certainly still dieting, and the old bird has earned herself a scholarly biography the hard way; if Helen Gurley Brown’s journey from the outhouses and tent revivals of the Ozarks into the cocktail parties and four-color closings of the Hearst Corporation can’t make a corker of a story, nothing can. Bad Girls Go Everywhere, by Jennifer Scanlon, a gender and women’s-studies professor at Bowdoin, is a comprehensive report on HGB theory, which is in a revisionist phase. It rejects the earlier view, long held by giants of the women’s movement such as Gloria Steinem, who believed (per Scanlon) that Brown was a scourge who “enhanced men’s rather than women’s lives by turning women into sexually available playmates.” Instead, we are asked to consider Brown “a pioneer, a founder of the second wave.” Brown “has largely been left out of established histories of postwar feminism’s emergence and ascendance,” and this book purports to correct the record, telling the true story behind her “very particular and still-relevant brand of feminism.”

The central argument, in précis: second-wave feminism—with its endless reading lists and casually divorced breadwinners, its stridently unshaven armpits and Crock-Pots of greasy coq au vin—was fine for the educated set, the B.A.-in-anthropology, little-bit-of-money-put-aside women who could get themselves master’s degrees in library science, peel off the Playtex 18-Hour Living Girdle one last time, and divest themselves of the whole maddening, saddening, 24-Hour Living Death of mid-century housewifery. But the movement wasn’t much of a starter for the young women of the American steno pool—call them the Seven Thousand Sisters—who barely made it all the way through Doctor Zhivago, let alone The Second Sex, and who, moreover, had no desire to go through life looking like Sasquatch and feeling angry all the time.

For these women, according to Scanlon, it took Helen Gurley Brown and her mass-market publication, Cosmopolitan (a month-by-month expansion of the ideas espoused in her 1962 blockbuster, Sex and the Single Girl), to advance some of the most important tenets of the new feminism: that a woman was entitled to a sexual life of whatever dimensions she chose; that work could be as fulfilling for women as for men; that the postwar American suburb and the role it offered to wives and mothers were spirit-deadening; and that a woman did not need to marry to lead a happy life.

But it is only through a willful misunderstanding of Brown’s life story, and of the premise of the book that made her famous, that anyone could promote the notion that Brown’s work has been dedicated to any cause other than how to win a husband.

Here are the first words of Sex and the Single Girl:

I married for the first time at thirty-seven. I got the man I wanted. It could be construed as something of a miracle considering how old I was and how eligible he was … He was sought after by many a Hollywood starlet as well as some less flamboyant but more deadly types. And I got him! We have two Mercedes-Benzes, one hundred acres of virgin forest near San Francisco, a Mediterranean house overlooking the Pacific, a full-time maid and a good life.

Brown has always embodied the idea that it’s not too late for any woman to find the comfort and protection of marriage. Indeed, the sexy-single-girl life (which she was always seeing in her rearview mirror, as she did not become a national guru until well after she married) was, for her, not an end in itself, but merely the process through which she was able to land her man:

For seventeen years I worked hard to become the kind of woman who might interest him. And when he finally walked into my life I was just worldly enough, relaxed enough, financially secure enough … and adorned with enough glitter to attract him.

Along the way to catching this colossus of manhood, she learned certain of life’s hard lessons for women, and if she dressed them up in the desperate, Blanche DuBois tinsel of her new creation—the single girl—she also told those home truths in the plainest and most haunting way. She didn’t just hint darkly at the possible pitfalls and sorrows of life as a sexually liberated, “all the time in the world” unmarried woman, she told it as it was; that millions of women chose to ignore that part of the message speaks to how deeply they wanted the David Brown at the end of the rainbow.

Brown also reshaped—enduringly, single-handedly—the way magazines and television shows for a female audience conceive of their mission and their scope, which encompasses the frankly titillating and the shockingly clinical, and presents them cheek by jowl. When you watch Oprah—or Dr. Phil or the Today show, or almost any successful work of daytime television for women—when you read any mass-market women’s magazine or listen to a call-in radio show for a female audience, you are experiencing the fruits of her innovations. These involved three distinct but related ideas: that American faith in the power of self-improvement as an animating force in individual lives is so complete that—provided the messenger has enough conviction—almost any bond of propriety can be broken in its name; that instruments of mass culture and entertainment are the most expedient means of conveying public-health information, and that they therefore have a moral imperative to do so; and that, where issues of women’s reproductive health and well-being are concerned, the line between a medical explanation and an essentially obscene exploitation can be reduced to nothing at all.

Born in an Arkansas hollow in 1922, fatherless by 10, Brown was poor—dirt poor—from the get-go, and she was raised by women who tended to step off the road and pee when the urge hit them. Clearly, there is something Appalachian about the easy truck with bodily functions that became so important to Brown’s mission and message. While the Mount Holyoke grads were meeting in embarrassed little encounter groups to discuss possibly putting a mirror down there, Brown was telling her readers to embrace all aspects of their body, including the various functions and products of the alimentary tract.

In another woman, one whose life journey began elsewhere, this might be described as a hard-won, anti-bourgeois earthiness, but Brown never was bourgeois. The central tension of her work, and what has made it such a success, is that her ideas, launched at women who desire to gain or maintain position in the middle-middle class, emanate from the sort of person who gives that group the deepest and most reflexive shudder of all: pee-on-the-side-of-the-road white trash.

Brown’s audacious—and winning—decision was not to hide her past, nor to embrace it, but to feature it as something she had transcended through hard work and almost pathological optimism. She also took an attitude toward men that was 180 degrees from that at the heart of second-wave feminism: she viewed them, not as oppressors to be vanquished, but as resources (economic, sexual, professional) to be tapped.

Brown’s principal obsession was not sex but money, or more precisely the saving of money: thrift at its meanest. Scanlon sees in this relentless focus the classic lines of a Depression childhood. But this Arkansas girlhood was not one marked by the specific privations of a singular event: this was a life in entrenched poverty, the kind that no one sentimentalizes, because to be poor and white in the Jim Crow South was to be so far on the wrong side of anything we hold as ennobling that we look away and leave it unaccounted for in an examination of someone who grew up to be a person of substance. When you advise a woman to dally with men because they might, in exchange, arrange for that woman “to buy everything from electric blankets to hi-fi records wholesale,” then you have violated the signal code of people who were jolted from the middle class in the 1930s: their ardent desire to behave decently because, for a time in their lives, that behavior was all that separated them from the Helen Gurleys of the world.

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Caitlin Flanagan is the author of Girl Land (2012) and To Hell With All That (2006).  More

Caitlin FlanaganCaitlin Flanagan began her magazine-writing career, in 2001, with a series of extended book reviews about the conflicts at the very heart of modern life—specifically, modern domestic life as it is lived by professional-class women. Flanagan has quickly established herself as a highly entertaining social critic unafraid to take on self-indulgence and political correctness, and her reviews provide penetrating and witheringly funny observations about the sexes and their discontents.

Flanagan's Atlantic articles have been named as finalists for the National Magazine Award five times, and her essay "Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor," which ran in September 2001, was included in the 2002 compilation of Best American Magazine Writing. Her work has also been included in Best American Essays 2003 and Best American Magazine Writing 2003. She is the author of the book To Hell with All That—an exploration, based on her Atlantic articles, of the lives of modern women.

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Flanagan earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Art History from the University of Virginia. She now lives in California, where she spends her time writing and raising twins.

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