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Remembering the Editor Who Told the World That ‘Single Girls Have Sex,’ Too

August 14, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Helen Gurley Brown told women they didn't have to compromise: They could have the career, the man, the family, and a great sex life. As the editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan, she defended this agenda enthusiastically for more than 30 years. Judy Woodruff and writer Gail Sheehy remember the life and legacy of Gurley Brown.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, remembering the legacy of Helen Gurley Brown.

She rose to national attention with the publication of a 1962 bestseller that quickly became a cultural touchstone, “Sex and the Single Girl.”

HELEN GURLEY BROWN, “Cosmopolitan”: Single girls weren’t supposed to have any sex life. That wasn’t the case, of course. They always have and they always will. But it was sort of sub-rosa, underground.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Helen Gurley Brown, 40 and married at the time, had a larger message: Women could have it all career, sex, marriage and more. She promoted those ideas as the editor in chief of “Cosmopolitan” magazine for more than three decades.

Some articles had a feminist tone. Others offered fashion tips and advice on landing a man. Brown defended them all.

HELEN GURLEY BROWN: The accusation, if I may, that “Cosmo” is a sex manual and we deal prolifically and prodigiously and eternally and everlastingly with sex, sex, sex, yes, we have always covered that particular topic willingly, gladly, happily, enthusiastically.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Brown was ousted as editor of the American edition of “Cosmopolitan” in 1997, but she stayed on as editor of its international editions for years. She died in New York yesterday at 90.

Some memories and thoughts now about Helen Gurley Brown from a writer who knew her well for many years. Gail Sheehy wrote about her for The Daily Beast. She’s the author of 16 books and writes for “Vanity Fair” and other publications.

Gail Sheehy, good to see you again.

GAIL SHEEHY, author/journalist: Happy to be with you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You knew, as we said, Helen Gurley Brown very well. Tell us a little bit about her life that would help us understand how she became the person she was.

GAIL SHEEHY: Well, she turned her back on a conventional woman’s life at the age of 7. And that was 1929.

She was — came from nothing, father died early. Her mother was impoverished. She had a crippled sister. She was really a Horatio Alger hero with a Holly Golightly thrown in. And she emanated a new American dream, the idea of the self-made woman.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And where did that come from? You were telling us today there was this self-reliance that stood out in Helen Gurley Brown.

What — what did that come from?

GAIL SHEEHY: She just — she was a very plucky girl. She didn’t want to be a hillbilly left in Arkansas.

She wanted to be a successful woman. And she had the idea that she could actually do that without getting married until she got good and ready and found ‘Mr. Right.’

And she managed to get that idea across to working-class women, ordinary women living in hardscrabble towns all over America, with not much to look forward to, but maybe a job at the 5 and 10, a boss husband, and no control over all the children they might have.

But, you know, there was a real social serendipity here. The birth control pill came along the same year that Helen Gurley Brown published “Sex and the Single Girl.” And that allowed her to give a new idea to women, to take the same prerogatives that young men had always taken, to enjoy a long, lusty prelude to marriage, if they married at all, and to spend the rest of the time building a successful career.

That was a totally new idea in the early ’60s. And her book came out a year before “The Feminine Mystique” and nine years before Gloria Steinem brought out “Ms.” magazine.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So what was her — how would you describe what her relationship was with the women’s movement?

GAIL SHEEHY: Well, she never — she wasn’t an ideologue.

She wasn’t the least bit political. But she had a vision. And that vision was of women becoming — you know, making their own choices. So she was parallel to the women’s movement, but she was never, you know, a card-carrying feminist. And that got her into a lot of trouble with the women’s movement.

But that movement went off, you know, a little bit to the extremes as well. Helen stayed on her message all the way through her life into her well — well into her 80s. And, you know, the proof of it is, is that magazine is in 70 or 80 countries around the world, including Muslim countries. And it continues to carry that same message around the world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What would you — how would you describe, Gail Sheehy, what the platform — what was the message that she most wanted to get across to women?

GAIL SHEEHY: She wanted to say, you can make your own choices in life. You don’t have to have money. You don’t have to have a man. You have to have grit and hard work and self-discipline.

Take the jobs that nobody else wants. She took 17 jobs as secretaries and made her way through many bosses who wanted to play pinch and tickle, until she found the man that she thought was worthy of her and married a man and believed strongly in a partnership between a man and a woman to achieve success.

She married a Hollywood producer. And, in fact, David Brown gave her the idea for her first book from letters she had written as a single girl. He also campaigned with her to get her the job as the editor of “Cosmo.” And he wrote all the cover lines, all those saucy cover lines.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I wanted to ask you about that, because she had never been an editor when she became the editor of “Cosmopolitan.” That was really something that they pulled off, wasn’t it?

GAIL SHEEHY: Absolutely, the two of them pulling that off.

David had been an editor earlier of the post-war “Cosmo,” which was going into the trash bin. And there — but the minute Helen took over, she totally turned that around. And from a very frumpy magazine, you know, meant for suburban housewives, suddenly, there was cleavage. Suddenly, there were women saying, you know, I want the same prerogatives that young men have.

It was a scandal at the time. But she kept saying outrageous things and putting on outrageous covers. And ,interestingly, she didn’t look anything like a “Cosmo” cover girl. She was skinny, flat-chested, pockmarked. But that allowed her to connect with these ordinary working-class girls who had no idea that there was another way to live except, you know, under the rules of the patriarchy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And if you had to sum it up, what would you say is the legacy? Clearly, we have come a long way since the 1960s, when she started “Cosmopolitan.”

GAIL SHEEHY: Well, I think that we still — we have learned that it isn’t as easy as saying women can have it all, which was really Helen’s idea.

You know, she never had any children. Neither did Gloria Steinem. It’s when you have children along with wanting to have a high-powered career and a marriage that’s really meaningful that the rubber meets the road. And so, you know, women can have it all, but not all at once. And I think we have come to learn that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gail Sheehy remembering Helen Gurley Brown, thank you very much.

GAIL SHEEHY: Thank you.