“Gone was the housewife, apron in tow. In her place was the Cosmopolitan Girl..She looked great, wore fabulous clothes, and had an unabashedly good time when those clothes came off.”
– New York Times on the influence of Cosmopolitan magazine under Helen Gurley Brown
Anyone who (really) knows me knows that I’m obsessed with magazines, but few understand why. Well, here you go: I was raised by a man.
As a dorky teenager trying to figure out my place in the world with no powerful women role models, magazines became my first taste of what it meant to be successful and glamorous. Yes, I knew all of the models – Cindy, Linda, Christy, Naomi – but the women who really captivated me were the editors – Anna Wintour, Kate Betts, Elizabeth Saltzman and, of course, Helen Gurley Brown.
This year we lost Ms. Brown, the pint-sized editor of Cosmo who reshaped the very definition of womanhood. I know that sounds like hyperbole, but it’s a fact. And while her passing was not exactly surprising – Brown was 90 after all – what is shocking is the fact that so few women understand the true depth of her influence. So in a world where “career girl” is no longer an oxymoron, here’s why I tip my hat (and bustier) to Helen Gurley Brown.
• She was truly self-made. Born with no special gifts in a small Arkansas town (population under 3,000), Brown took ownership of the life she wanted and climbed to the highest levels of international business. This is hard enough today for the ladies, but Brown did it four decades ago.
• She was ridiculously ahead of her time. “Don’t use men to get what you want in life,” Brown once said. “Get it for yourself.” If you’re thinking, “well, d’uh,” right now you have women like her to thank for that.
• Her biggest achievements were post-40. Brown published her first book, Sex and the Single Girl, in 1962 when she was 40 years old. Moreover, she was 43 when she took the reins at Cosmo. Since it’s easy to feel left behind at 30 these days, I find that massively inspiring.
• She was the real deal. Critics tried to dismiss Brown as a leopard-loving lightweight when she became editor of Cosmo but I assume no one was complaining when she more than tripled the magazine’s circulation. (Proving once again that success is the best revenge.)
• She understood the power of the purse. Yes, Brown doled out her fair share of sex tips, but what you may not know is that she was also in to women dominating their finances. (Presumably, this was because Brown’s father died when she was 10 years old, leaving her mother distraught with no income.) Still, today the notion of financial independence for women is so ingrained in our self-image that it’s hard to believe it could have ever been considered radical.
I know it’s easy to paint Brown as the “original” Carrie Bradshaw, but her real legacy is that there wouldn’t even be a Carrie if there weren’t a Helen. And if that’s not worth a celebratory cosmo, I don’t know what is. So on behalf of all the girls you inspired to become women, let me say,“Cheers, Ms. Brown.” Here’s to making heaven just a little bit sexier.
photo: Santi Visalli/Getty Images