When I first heard the news that iconic Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown had passed away I was immediately hit with a wave of sadness. Having spent much of 2009 holed up in my university library reading article after article on Gurley Brown as I prepared to write my dissertation on the immense power she welded, I perhaps had a greater understanding than many of exactly who she was and what she had accomplished.
Helen first came to prominence in 1962 as author of ‘Sex and the Single Girl’, a non-fiction guide advising women that they should be financially independent and consider casual sexual relationships without marriage. Following the huge success of the book, in 1965 Gurley Brown was appointed as editor of Hearst’s ailing monthly publication Cosmopolitan where she remained for the next 32 years. Throughout her time at Cosmo, Gurley Brown completely revolutionised the title telling women for the first time ever that they really could have it all. Love, sex, career, money, fun… you name it, the ‘Cosmo Girl’ would go for it and would make sure she got it with perfectly groomed hair, lashings of lipstick and the figure of a supermodel.
Throughout the late 1960s, Helen Gurley Brown worked to completely reshape the US media and had a great impact on the fight for women’s liberation. All of a sudden women realised that a life chained to the kitchen sink whilst their husband went to work every day was not the only answer. Arriving at a perfect moment in history when US women felt discontented and wanting more from life, Cosmopolitan told its audience not to be afraid to use their sexuality to get what they wanted. If they looked good and used their assets wisely they too could enjoy a successful career, support themselves financially and enjoy casual relationships.
Although Gurley Brown came under fire during the second wave of feminism for her bold views on women using their sexual prowess to climb the ladder (rather than their academic achievements and business acumen); at a time when popular culture revelled in the concept of the male ‘Playboy lifestyle’, Cosmo spoke to women in a language they wanted to hear, about a life that they craved.
Helen Gurley Brown’s death will no doubt have reignited conversation surrounding past struggles for women’s liberation, a struggle that will seem inconceivable to many young women today. However, results of Helen Gurley Brown’s influence throughout that challenging era are still visible within today’s media and it can be argued that without her, life may have been very different. Many would say that without the construction of Helen’s ‘Cosmo Girl’ there would be no Carrie Bradshaw, CERTAINLY no Samantha Jones; and Christian Grey would be nothing but a glimmer of a dark and deeply private fantasy.
So, next time you go for your dream promotion at work, head off on a girls holiday with friends, or settle down on the sofa after an intense gym session for a night of Sauvignon Blanc and a Sex and the City box set – spare a thought for Helen Gurley Brown. Without her, life could have been very different!