Sex and the Single Girl: The Legacy of Helen Gurley Brown

Helen Gurley Brown has died at the age of 90. Before she started her Cosmopolitan magazine there was her bestselling book, Sex and the Single Girl. Published in 1962, it sold 2 million copies in 3 weeks.

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Helen Gurley Brown has died at the age of 90. You might consider her synonymous with Cosmopolitan magazine, where she was editor-in-chief for more than 30 years, building it into a widespread international brand (for more on that, read Edith Zimmerman's recent piece on the franchise in The New York Times Magazine). But before Brown started at Cosmo there was her bestselling book, Sex and the Single Girl. Published in 1962, it sold 2 million copies in 3 weeks.

revised edition of the book came out in 2003, in which Brown provided a bit of new material regarding social changes for women since the 1960s. But a lot remains the same. Chapters include an analysis of the advantages of being single, suggestions on categorizing the men in one's life (and how to handle them), suggestions on where to meet said men, how to be sexy, how to get ahead at work, how to make the most of one's money, tips on decorating and dinner parties, how to eat well and stay fit, what to wear, how to do one's makeup, how to have an affair, and, in the last chapter, how to have "the rich, full life."

As Margalit Fox writes in Brown's New York Times obituary,

Published in 1962, the year before Betty Friedan ignited the modern women’s movement with The Feminine Mystique, [Sex and the Single Girl] taught unmarried women how to look their best, have delicious affairs and ultimately bag a man for keeps, all in breathless, aphoristic prose.

In terms of real-life relevance, Brown didn't marry until she was 37 years old. By that point she'd already worked her way up the career ladder as a secretary and made it, a la Peggy Olson, into the creative side of the ad world, becoming the "highest-paid female copywriter on the West Coast" at the agency Foote, Cone, and Belding, per her thorough obituary in the Albany Times Union. In 1959, she married David Brown, 43, a film executive at 20th Century Fox Studios who later became a producer; he also partnered with her on projects and encouraged her to write Sex and the Single Girl.

It's 50 years later, yet many of the topics, both generally and specifically, that she addressed are still being discussed. So much so that Anna David published her own memoirFalling for Me: How I Hung Curtains, Learned to Cook, Traveled to Seville, and Fell in Love, in 2011, using Sex and the Single Girl as a kind of lesson plan to analyze her choices in life. We're still dealing with questions of what people see as the "right" female role in society, and how to achieve gender equality, and how to have it all. And how, even, to know what "all" we want? Brown, however, knew what she wanted, did it, and wrote a book about it. As New York City Mayor Bloomberg said in a statement today, "She pushed boundaries and often broke them, clearing the way for younger women to follow in her path." In another manner of thinking, via Fox, "In Ms. Brown’s hands, Cosmopolitan anticipated Sex and the City by three decades."

That doesn't mean everyone considered Brown a feminist. As Fox continues, "Ms. Brown routinely described herself as a feminist, but whether her work helped or hindered the cause of women’s liberation has been publicly debated for decades. It will doubtless be debated long after her death. What is safe to say is that she was a Janus-headed figure in women’s history, simultaneously progressive and retrogressive in her approach to women’s social roles." But even for those who don't agree with everything she did or suggested, or any of it, the underlying message that every woman should have the right to decide for herself what she wants to accomplish in her life is one that should be lauded.

And the fact is, Sex and the Single Girl remains incredibly relevant in a lot of ways. Maybe some of the fashions and scene details and specifics on how we do things or what we want have changed. But it's heartening to remind ourselves that a woman who hadn't "settled down" and married by her late 30s, a woman who didn't have children at all, instead had what any person would agree was a full, incredible, and inspirational life—and that she built that existence for herself. It's both testament to progress but also a reminder that there's still a ways to go that her words remain so applicable to the lives of today's women.

Of course, Brown was also one of an early spate of female writers telling honest truths about her life to have to contend with a bunch of what we'd call in today's parlance, trolls. One rather epic comment from her in response to criticism of the book was reportedly this:

"This is how it was for me. This is how I played it. It’s just a pippy-poo little book and people come back with this diatribe about its great social significance. Well it’s just because nobody ever got off his high horse long enough to write to single women in any form they could associate with. If they had, somebody else would be the arbiter for single women at this point instead of me."

And yet, therein lies the key to exactly its great social significance. To her legacy, a toast.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.