During our free periods in high school, my friends and I would often hang out in the library, flipping through the glossy pages of Seventeen and Mademoiselle, Sassy and Cosmopolitan. All of these magazines modeled lifestyles far removed from our actual reality – hardly any of us wore makeup or cared about fashion designers – but it was that very otherness that so intrigued me, these glimpses into other possible lives. Lives that, of course – and especially according to Cosmo – included lots of sex; it was in those pages that I first learned the terms ‘cunnilingus’ and ‘fellatio.’
When I heard that Helen Gurley Brown, Cosmopolitan’s influential editor-in-chief, had passed away on August 13, I immediately thought back on all those hours spent paging through Cosmo and its counterparts. In the years since high school, I’ve learned a lot more about the magazine industry, and I can reel off the shortcomings of and criticisms levied at mainstream women’s magazines. Yet it’s impossible to understate just how much of an impact Brown’s work, both as an editor and a writer, had in both the publishing world and among women all over the country. When her groundbreaking advice book Sex and the Single Girl was published in 1962, some states still prohibited the purchase of contraceptives by either single women or married couples; in fact, Brown had to remove a section about contraception from the published version of the book. Despite – or because of – a cultural climate that frowned on women having sex before marriage, Sex and the Single Girl was a bestseller that urged women not just to explore their sexuality but also to strive for financial independence. While her book drew criticism from a number of feminists at the time, it would eventually come to be regarded as a champion of women’s empowerment.
This legacy can also be seen in Cosmo, which Brown edited for 32 years, taking it from a faltering title into a publishing powerhouse that boasts 64 international versions. As a recent article in The New York Times Magazine observed, in countries like Indonesia and India Cosmopolitan has served as one of the few resources for women eager to learn about sex and their bodies.
Indeed, while the magazine has always served as an easy target for criticism, thanks to its salacious cover lines and (perhaps ironically) focus on sex, Helen Gurley Brown never hesitated to describe herself as a feminist. In a 1982 interview, she said, “I am a feminist … Cosmo predated the women’s movement, and I have always said my message is for the woman who loves men but who doesn’t want to live through them. Sex and the Single Girl was controversial at the time because it said a woman could be a sexual creature and not have a wedding band on her finger. … I sometimes think feminists don’t read what I write. I am for total equality. My relevance is that I deal with reality.”
Sarah's first book, Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement, will be out March 2013. For more information, follow her on Twitter @saraherdreich, or check out saraherdreich.com.