Story posted April 03, 2009
She may have written the book on swinging urban gals with her 1962 bestseller, Sex and the Single Girl, but until now, no one has written the book on Helen Gurley Brown.
The longtime editor of Cosmopolitan magazine is the subject of a new, critically acclaimed biography by Bowdoin Professor of Gender and Women's Studies Jennifer Scanlon. The book has been featured in major magazines and newspapers around the world, including the New York Times, The New Yorker, O, The Oprah Magazine, The London Observer, and Harper's Bazaar. (Read a story about all the reviews.)
Bad Girls Go Everywhere: The Life of Helen Gurley Brown (Oxford University Press, March 2009), traces the life of the maverick diva of New York publishing from her humble, working-class beginnings to her ascent to the pantheon of 20th century women.
The book title is derived from an embroidered pillow that famously adorns Brown's office, declaring, "Good girls go to heaven. Bad girls go everywhere."
Scanlon reveals a fascinating, unapologetic woman who blew open the conservative mores of the 1960s with a unique philosophy of pragmatic feminism that celebrated independence, sexuality, the pursuit of beauty - and the overlap of sexual politics and commerce.
"Many second wave feminists wrote her off as no more than the female equivalent of Hugh Hefner," notes Scanlon, who is an expert in consumer culture. "I'm arguing that she was an early practitioner of the second wave who also laid the groundwork for what people are considering feminism today—the so-called third wave, lipstick-friendly feminism you see typified in Sex and the City.
"For example, Brown thought fashion was liberating for women, not oppressive. She had an early understanding that women 'perform' femininity, as feminist theorists today argue, but she didn't see that as something altogether bad. She saw power in it, not oppression."
Scanlon found an untapped wealth of information on Brown at the Smith College Archives, which houses her papers, along with many other notable women of the 20th century, including Smith alum Gloria Steinem.
"Here is Helen Gurley Brown, who didn't go to college at all, never mind a place like Smith College, who made her way up in the work world without any formal education, yet Smith determined she was important enough to document through a significant collection. I greatly respect their choice," says Scanlon.
Among the materials, Scanlon discovered letters and journals that offer up juicy accounts of life as a single woman. "They are particularly revealing about what it was like in the postwar period, during an era of staid domesticity, for a sexy single woman to negotiate gender roles" notes Scanlon.
Brown was famous for advising women on how to leverage the social-financial contract between the sexes. "She had some interesting schemes," says Scanlon. "One was, if you go out with a man who is from out of town, get him to pay for your taxi ride home. Have him give you the cab money, let the taxi take you one block, then jump out and take a bus."
"She felt that women should never pay for dates," adds Scanlon. "She was aware that men were the ones who earned the money and felt they should be willing to spend it; she maintained that women should reciprocate as they saw fit. Brown addressed these economic, social, and sexual relations between women and men that most people didn't want to acknowledge or talk about. It was one of the things that made her unpopular among conservatives but enormously popular with a mainstream audience."
Scanlon had the opportunity to meet directly with Brown on several occasions at her New York office in the Hearst Building.
"She is 87 now, and she's still working, Scanlon says. "Her lifelong philosophy has been that work is central to women's identity, and she can't imagine her own life without that kind of engagement."
As for the biography, Scanlon notes, "She resisted anyone writing her biography for years, but in the end I think she was amenable to this project primarily because I'm an academic and not someone in the industry—someone who might well have written a very different kind of book about a figure like Helen Gurley Brown."