Bad Girls Go Everywhere

Hard work and Serendipity-a most auspicious combination

I think Helen Gurley Brown has been a part of my subconscious for years. Everyone knows the mighty powerhouse that made Cosmopolitan Magazine the bible for fun, beautiful and don’t forget, sexually open women, of the world. Without HGB, there would never have been a place for Candace Bushnell and the SATC characters. I remember buying her book “Sex and the Single Girl” at a garage sale years ago.  I knew it was a seminal, although brown-bag-covered book, of the feminist movement.  I gladly added it to my bookshelf, proud to possess a book that had been such a game changer for woman.

When I ran across Jennifer Scanlon’s Bad Girls Go Everywhere, I thought I knew Helen Gurley Brown.  The magazine and the woman at it’s helm had attained mythical status.  The powerful, yet sexually charged cover photos by Francesco Scavullo, the provocative titles, and it’s small dark, helmet-haired editor-in-chief were such a part of my personal female history that I couldn’t imagine there was anything I didn’t already know.  I was delightfully proven wrong. This is not only a great biography about an interesting woman, but a great history lesson in the feminist movement. Jennifer Scanlon gives a well-rounded picture of Helen the woman and the doors she opened.

Young Helen Gurley was not dealt a winning hand in life. Raised by a single mother, with a handicapped sister, during the Depression, she had a front row seat to her mother’s lack of options and the financial chaos it caused in their lives.  She was not considered beautiful, so she did not have the easy life that comes to those physically blessed. Without money, connections or good looks, she did not possess the usual assets that could secure a profitable future. What she did own in spades was determination. A grit to rise above her circumstance, she gave herself a decidedly different path. She became smart, witty and made herself attractive. Where the pretty girls could garner a benefactor through social ranks, Helen used the work force that she was forced to be a part of, as her hunting ground. More than willing to be a quill in the company inkwell, Helen became the prototype of the smart, adventurous, working girl.

With hard work, savvy and a couple of lucky breaks, Helen became a pioneer of the second wave of feminism, although generally unacknowledged.  What Jennifer Scanlon does well is show that Helen Gurley Brown sits in the center of the feminist movement, between the more widely lauded Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem.  A highly educated woman that became a housewife, Betty thought women needed escape from the oppressive suburban domesticity trap. Work was necessary for her fulfillment and happiness, which is easy to preach when a husband’s finances had already secured survival.   HGB on the other hand, had a firm grasp on the working class perspective:  women’s equality was necessary for survival, especially single women, who did not have a husband’s finances to rely upon.  Gloria Steinem was young and more radical, seeing women’s equality as an essential human right with the voracity of the civil rights movement.   For Friedan, freedom came from the intellectual mind and women should reject the society dictated “feminine monster” as they became more enlightened.  Steinem wanted women to violently shake off the shackles of feminine oppression-bras and all. Helen Gurley Brown was all about the feminine, monster though it may be.  She never wanted women to forget the assets of femininity, and encouraged their full human expression in all ways;  makeup, wardrobe, sex and intellect sharing the same level of importance. To Helen, sex and intellect were twin powers that when wielded effectively, helped women progress in arenas that were not often welcoming.   Where Friedan was intellectual, Steinem was action-packed, Helen Gurley Brown was practical. She encouraged power and independence by working within the system and using every asset in your arsenal.  Work hard, be smart, but wear the right bra (or take it off if necessary). The fact that her target audience was the uneducated, working class, and often single woman, gave  voice to a neglected majority in the feminist fight. She introduced the world to the “lipstick feminist” and made sure we all know that our smart is beautiful, pretty is powerful and nothing is as fun as achieving.

                                                                    Recommended Reading:

Bad Girls Go Everywhere  The Feminine Mystique  Bad Feminist  A Room of One's Own Virginia Woolf

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