Biology, bedroom and the boardroom: A tribute to former Cosmo editor Helen Gurley Brown

Janice Atkinson for The Daily Mail
14th August 2012

“Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere.” A suitable epitaph for the woman that enabled my generation to enjoy sex – who taught us about careers, money, men and how to have it all.

Helen Gurley Brown, former editor of Cosmopolitan, died last night aged 90 years. This trail-blazing woman set out to tell her readers “how to get everything out of life — the money, recognition, success, men, prestige, authority, dignity — whatever she is looking at through the glass her nose is pressed against.”  And she did. For women, Cosmo was a bible and a reference book on life.

In the 1960s, my mother’s generation were still tied to the kitchen sink. Sex was a dirty habit that men indulged in, while women did it to get pregnant and refused to discuss it with their daughters. Those of us born in the ’60s grew up not understanding our bodies, or the pain of periods which were also considered dirty and not to be mentioned in front of our fathers. Sanitary towels were hidden in cupboards. Sex, we were told, led to pregnancy – and that was the last thing our mothers wanted at their doors.

Girls’ magazines, Bunty and then Jackie, did not tell us what we needed to know. Then we discovered Cosmopolitan and it all became very clear. Periods did not have to be painful. Contraception was available – the options and where to get it. Sex was not a dirty concept, but to be enjoyed and used to great effect. Cosmo was obsessed with orgasms, not an issue goes by without reference to them – what, where, when, how, bigger, better, wow. Thank you, Cosmo – our mothers didn’t really know what they were.

Brown educated us, not just about biology and the bedroom but about how to get into the boardroom too. At my grammar school when I said I wanted to go into media and work at the BBC I was given a leaflet on ‘how to be a secretary’. Today our daughters are told what they need to do to become a producer or editor.

However, some practices never change. Two girlfriends with daughters at grammar schools told me of their daughters’ ambitions. One, a very bright woman with two teenage girls, said quite proudly that her eldest daughter was considering Exeter University for the type of husband (rich) that she would meet. No mention of the course she would read. Another friend with a teenage girl – again the mother is very successful in her own right and in a man’s world – said her daughter’s ambition was to wear Jimmy Choos, work in the City and marry a rich man. “Sex and the Single Girl,” Brown’s million-selling 1962 advice book on how to get a man (and enjoy doing it) is still as relevant today as it was back then.

The ’60s and ’70s feminists denigrated her. Feminist writer Betty Friedan dismissed the magazine as “immature teenage-level sexual fantasy” – but later changed her tune and said Brown, “in her editorship, has been a rather spirited and gutsy example in the revolution of women.”  She played her part in enabling women and was a balance to the left-driven and rather frightening feminist movement who did not and still do not represent ordinary women.

At 70 Brown was saying, “My own philosophy is, if you’re not having sex, you’re finished”, referring to women over 50. She has something there. This generation can have HRT and look fab. The kids have left home, they know what they want and, more importantly, what they don’t. These women are financially independent and know a thing or two about sex. They are no longer consigned to the kitchen sink with a string of pearls and a twinset.

I am grateful to Brown; she liberated my generation. But can all women have it all? Are we living ‘Sex in the City’? No, 50 years on we still struggle and juggle the majority of childcare. We are exhausted after a hard day at the office, but the kids still want feeding and taxi-ing about, our men still want their bellies fed and their members stroked.

You can have it all if you’re rich and can afford childcare and domestic help. It was no coincidence that Brown and her husband chose not to have children.

I only read women’s magazines when I am in the hairdressers. When the junior plonks Hello, House and Garden, Chat and Cosmo in front of me, I still reach for Cosmo.

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