On August 13, Helen Gurley Brown, iconic editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, died at the age of 90. With its sensualized and often absurd sex tips—sprinkle a little pepper under his nose right before he climaxes. Sneezing can feel similar to an orgasm and can amplify its good effects—and its monthly covers encouraging women to learn the secret sex move that will blow his mind, Cosmo has long been a target of criticism by sex educators like myself. The magazine’s insistence on teaching women to be man-pleasing sexual stars irks a lot of us. But when you look back at how it all started, Helen Gurley Brown might actually be one of the first sex-positive feminists.
Gurley Brown wanted to address women who were just starting to come into their own in the early ’60s. She called them Cosmo Girls. The Cosmo Girl, she claimed, was ‘A woman who is traditional in many ways. She loves men, she loves children, but she doesn’t want to live through other people, she wants to achieve on her own.’ The Cosmo Girl had sex because she wanted to and she did so whether she was married or not. This is hardly remarkable in 2012, but in 1965, it was shocking. It was a time when women were still relatively new to the work force, when most worked only until they got married, when birth control was still fairly new and when sex outside of marriage was something nice girls might have done, but certainly did not admit openly.
Gurley Brown understood the Cosmo Girl because she was one. In an age when marriage was still considered the ultimate goal for women, she chose her career first. She quickly rose from secretary to copywriter and became one of the highest paid copywriters in the country. She waited to marry until she was 37 years old and chose not to have children.
Even before she became editor of Cosmo, Gurley Brown was a champion of the new sexually liberated woman. In 1962, she wrote the now classic advice book Sex and the Single Girl, which encouraged women to become financially independent and to experience sexual relationships before or without marriage. Certainly a lot of the book’s content—like how to decorate your apartment and how to dress and put your makeup on correctly—sounds superficial. But what made Sex and the Single Girl different than all of the other advice books for women of that time was that Gurley Brown encouraged women to do these things to feel good about themselves and enjoy their lives on their own terms, not just to get a man. It may seem trite now, but in 1962, it was ground-breaking.
Gurley Brown took over the editorship of Cosmopolitan in 1965 and took the failing magazine to a profit position in just four months. She knew there were other women like her who were looking for a magazine that reflected the lifestyle they were living or wanted to live, not what they were told they should want. They had their own lives, careers, interests and achievements. Gurley Brown and Cosmo defended their right to pursue that.
Times have changed and the Cosmo Girl has become the norm rather than the exception. Cosmo magazine, with all of its directive sex advice, telling women how to look and act, is now almost the exact opposite of liberating. It’s tough to look at it today and remember that women have not always had the sexual freedom that is talked about so openly in the magazine. Love it or hate it, we may owe just a bit of that freedom to Cosmopolitan and its founder, Helen Gurley Brown.
Brenda Kerber is a sexual health educator who has worked with local not-for-profits since 1995. She is the owner of the Edmonton-based, sex-positive adult toy boutique the Traveling Tickle Trunk.