Helen Gurley Brown, sex, and the sexual revolution

The sexual revolution of the 1960s, according to feminist historians, was not about sex but rather about the traditional gender roles that had been foisted upon us by society. Sexual activity, they tell us, had really very little to do with it.

Not so for Helen Gurley Brown. The sexual revolution was indeed about sex and about how women could take advantage of it. And Brown never missed an opportunity to tell us about that.

Brown was born Helen Gurley in 1922 into a family of what she called “Arkansas hillbillies.” Her father died when Helen was just a young girl, and when she was a teenager, her mother moved the family to Los Angeles. Helen spent the rest of her teen years in Southern California. She moved back East briefly to attend school, but eventually, she landed in Los Angeles again working for an advertising agency.

She turned out to be one of the best advertising copywriters the agency had ever hired. She was also one of the highest-paid copywriters in the business.

In 1959 she married David Brown, a well-known film producer. During the 1950s in Los Angeles, Helen Gurley Brown developed some out-of-the-box ideas about sex and sexual practices and what they should mean for the modern woman. Her thinking about that topic perfectly anticipated the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s.

During the same year that she married Brown, and with his great encouragement, she wrote and published the book that would make her famous, Sex and the Single Girl. The book talked frankly about how, when, and why females should ramp up their sexual practices before they get married. Having affairs, according to Brown, was not a sin but a strategy, and Brown’s book gave the girls a lot of advice on tactics.

Brown and her publisher plotted to get the book banned in certain areas, a plan that never came off. It didn’t need to. The book shot to the top of every bestseller list and stayed there for months.

In 1964, the book was made into a movie starring Natalie Wood. That same year Brown took over Cosmopolitan magazine, and she turned that staid literary journal into a monthly manual of advice for women on how to look good, feel good, and get the most out of the man they were with. The covers of the magazine inevitably featured gorgeous models and actresses dressed in frocks with plunging necklines. The ideal female that the magazine was attempting to achieve became known as the Cosmo Girl, a sexually liberated woman who could make her own way in the world.

Feminists did not particularly like Brown or her magazine, complaining that her emphasis on sex and little else did nothing to advance the role of women in society. Nor did the magazine say much about motherhood and the role of children in a woman’s life.

Brown was breezily undeterred by these criticisms. She occasionally opened up the columns of the magazine to feminists with a broader point of view, and she even allowed an occasional article that mentioned children. But Brown kept her eye, and the eye of the magazine, squarely focused on what she saw is her original goal: helping women increase their sex appeal and enjoy sexual relationships.

Brown remained at the head of the magazine for the next three decades but was finally ousted by its board in 1997. She remained with the parent company, the Hearst Corporation, for several years after that. Her marriage to David Brown lasted until her death in 2012 at the age of 90. The couple had no children.

Brown once said, “Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere.” That’s the way she lived her life.

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About Jim Stovall

Jim Stovall, (JPROF.com) a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self-publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker, and beekeeper -- among other things. Subscribe to his weekly newsletter at http://www.jprof.com .
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