The single girl "is engaging because she lives by her wits," declared Brown, who pointed to her younger self as a prime example of the empowered single girl she now celebrated.
And, most central to Brown's vision, the single girl is having sex, a lot of sex, and enjoying romantic relations with men, lots of men.
Most scandalous of all was Helen Gurley Brown's insistence that married men were not off limits for sexual affairs—not by a long shot. Married men, she advised, were among other things, "frequently marvelous in bed and careful not to get you pregnant."
As Jennifer Scanlon, author of a biography of Brown, documents, Helen Gurley Brown sought the scandal and controversy that came with the publication of Sex and the Single Girl, even attempting to orchestrate a censure of the book by church authorities in order to boost sales. She didn't need the censure: The book sold by the millions.
Helen Gurley Brown was later hired as editor of Cosmopolitan, a traditional women's magazine that she transformed into an engine of cultural revolution. In her years editing the magazine (1965-1997), she remade the "single girl" into the "Cosmo girl," arguing for the liberation of women by glamour, sex, and relationships with men. Housewives and coeds alike bought Cosmopolitan, which offered covers that were enthusiastic about sexual technique and the power of overt female sexuality.
The mainstream feminist movement did not see Brown as an ally, but a glance at the "hooking up" culture of today's university campus reveals that she won the argument. She lived long enough to welcome the reproductive revolution and the ability of women to have children without a husband.
She never acknowledged the cost of her revolution. Just weeks before her death Americans would learn that 41 percent of all births now occur outside of marriage, and that figure rises to 60 percent among women without a college education. The personal and public consequences of that new reality are massive.
She was a living contradiction, who argued that being the single girl was the ideal, but then married; and that married men were fair game for adulterous affairs, but then drew the line at her husband.
The lesson for those who, like me, believe that the sexual revolution represents a moral disaster is that such moral revolutions come like a great tidal surge, led by revolutionaries willing to scandalize mainstream culture, confident that their controversial ideas will one day move into the cultural mainstream. Helen Gurley Brown lived long enough to see it all happen, to mark the 50th anniversary of Sex and the Single Girl and to know that she had played a major role in one of the most significant cultural transformations in human history.
A single individual cannot accomplish a moral revolution, but such revolutions cannot happen without individuals who are willing to make their arguments in public, push them with energy over decades, and never sound retreat.
Helen Gurley Brown was not just a celebrity. She was a moral revolutionary who lived long enough to see the sexual revolution become our mainstream culture.