Helen Gurley Brown’s recent death prompted both fans and critics alike to debate her legacy and impact on women’s rights. Was she a feminist? An anti-feminist? Whether she helped or hindered the feminist cause can be debated, but Brown never questioned her ideals. “How could any woman not be a feminist?” she once asked aloud in an interview with Cosmo in 1985. Making a woman feel “comfortable to be themselves” was Brown’s primary goal, and one she considered to be quite feminist in itself.
Though Brown is best known as the editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan Magazine, it was her first book, Sex and the Single Girl that brought her to the public eye and secured her position at Cosmo. The book was a celebration of a single life in which women enjoyed as much sexual freedom as men did. So, what does Sex and the Single Girl have to do with Margaret Sanger? In short, quite a lot.
Though Brown did not feature birth control in the book, she did refer to it as a “safe” and “reliable” option for women who decided to engage in sexual intercourse. Without birth control, there would be no Sex and the Single Girl, and Sex and the Single Mother, some may argue, doesn’t have quite as provocative a vibe!
Sanger and Brown had much in common. Both women experienced hardships in their early lives that propelled them to fight for what they separately defined as women’s rights. Born in Green Forest, Arkansas, an outpost of the Ozarks, to a “hillbilly” family, Brown remembered her difficult upbringing as she searched for an alternate road; one unlike that of which her parents had experienced. Offering women a different view, and celebrating a lifestyle that didn’t conform to the societal norms for women at the time, was what drove her career.
Similarly, events of Sanger’s childhood served as the impetus behind much of her resolve. The painful memories of her mother’s childbearing experiences and her premature death at age 52 left Sanger–one of eleven children– passionately focused on women’s reproductive rights. Both women wanted better than the choices their mothers had, not just for themselves, but for all women. As a result, they dedicated their life’s work to ensuring that women would have broader options.
Helen Gurley Brown’s landmark work Sex and the Single Girl was published in 1962 on the brink of the Sexual Revolution. Featuring the terms “sex” and “single girl,” the title alone was enough to incite collective gasps amongst traditionalists emerging from the sexually suffocating 1950s, a decade dedicated to celebrating the ins-and-outs of housewifery. Sex and the Single Girl offered a new path, one for women who failed to fit into the happily married mold. And although much of the advice had a “how to please your man” feel, the nature of Brown’s advice was always to encourage what she believed to be the advancement of women, whether it was economically, sexually, or personally (though the bits about striving to be an office sex symbol make that sometimes difficult to understand).
Though controversial, Sex and the Single Girl did not break any obscenity laws as Sanger’s early works did. What Every Girl Should Know, Sanger’s breakthrough newspaper column, published in the socialist The Call, and later in 1921 in a compiled format, was the first work to challenge the status quo and enlighten young women regarding their physical and emotional maturity. Sanger’s main focus was on providing young women with factual information about sex and reproduction so that they could make informed decisions about their reproductive lives.
What Every Girl Should Know was considered so controversial that the Post Office banned one of the columns since it dealt with venereal diseases. Because the words “gonorrhea” and “syphilis” were included in the article, they violated the Comstock Law of 1873, which outlawed lewd, lascivious, indecent, and obscene publications. Instead of the column, its readers turned to the The Call one Sunday morning, to see the article masthead — “What Every Girl Should Know” and then the words: “NOTHING by order of the Post Office.”
This was Sanger’s first brush with the Comstock Act, which we battled in one form or another until 1937 when its bans on birth control were eased. She continued publishing What Every Girl Should Know in pamphlet form, also republishing an earlier column on sex education, What Every Mother Should Know, the Woman Rebel and Family Limitation.
Sanger’s work predated Brown’s, and their messages were very different. But without Sanger’s pioneering efforts, and her indefatigable work to make contraception acceptable, safe and effective, Sex and the Single Girl would not have been possible. As Sanger wrote in 1916:
In former days the women and girls were kept within the close confines of the home. Innocence was their charm, and ignorance was a virtue. There was no need that the girl should know anything of her body, of the marriage state, or of motherhood, until she was given over by her parents into the hands of her husband for instruction and care.
Today, however, this is no longer sufficient. The girl of today begins her life at 14 years to leave the home and the cloistered care of her parents to enter into the world’s work. Never before has she worked so closely at the side of her brother, and never before has she had greater need for knowledge of her self, her physiology, her emotions and desires–in fact, a need to know herself throughout. Education is her only and principal weapon for her defense against downfall.
Thousands of young girls are being caught in the meshes of modern life because of their ignorance of themselves. Ignorance of a girl’s body is one of the strongest forces that sends her into unclean living: and all the curfew bells, the legislation and the suppression in the world will only strengthen this force instead of lessening it.
From the fourteenth to the twenty-third year every girl passes through a budding period called the adolescent period. She finds herself suddenly changed from a little girl with her hair down her back, whose interests have been dolls and toys, into a different being, with new sensations, new dreams, new awakenings–all of which she does not understand. (Sanger, “Tell Girls Things they Should Know,” 1916.)
The successful single life that Brown initially described in her work could only be achieved with the help of birth control– a message that Cosmo‘s readers were quick to grasp by the the early 1970s. Cosmo itself was a little slower to embrace birth control and regularly discuss its uses within the magazine’s pages, but it was the only leading women’s publication to do so.
Many of Brown’s statements and actions are considered controversial by today’s standards. Some today have branded her a “stiletto feminist,” and hold her responsible for the indoctrination of sex and beauty idolatry that many women hold themselves accountable for attaining. Others see her as a bold woman who fought for women’s sexual and personal freedom at a time when others were hesitant to do so– even despite the questionable direction Cosmo took later on in terms of advancing the feminist cause.
As history debates the legacy Brown will leave behind, it will be important to remember that while she was successful, powerful, and able to be in control of her life’s work, she was also in a position in which she had the freedom of choice and expression to be controversial and groundbreaking largely because of the heroic actions of many leading women who paved the way for her to be so.
Click here for Sanger’s “What Every Girl Should Know series.