:: Article

Bad Girls Go Everywhere

By Max Dunbar.


Bad Girls Go Everywhere: The Life of Helen Gurley Brown, Jennifer Scanlon, Oxford University Press 2009

So far the twenty-first century hasn’t been kind to feminism. The UK is spoken of as post-feminist, yet the higher elites of most industries and professions, from politics to banking to the arts, are still dominated by males. Those women who do make it to the top are criticised and ridiculed by the same papers that run puritanical shock stories about women going out for a few drinks on a Saturday night. Rape conviction rates are five per cent and dropping. The gains in abortion and contraception rights made by the feminist movements of the twentieth century still exist, but in the current climate they seem like hollow, almost regrettable victories. The liberal-left accommodation with religious fundamentalism left the contemporary male (who had paid lip-service to gender equality for decades) free to ruminate on how much better life would be in a more spiritual society where the bitches would just do as they were told. The kickass femme fatale of This Life’s Anna Forbes was replaced by the quivering, insecure and male-dependent Bridget Jones.

In these compromised and troubled times not much is heard of Helen Gurley Brown. In Bad Girls Go Everywhere, Brown’s first biography, Jennifer Scanlon argues that Brown matters just as much, if not more, to women’s emancipation than the essayists and activists of academia. At forty-three she took over the editorship of Cosmopolitan when it was little more than a dying offshoot of the Hearst empire and turned it into a multi-million pound commercial and critical phenomenon. Her bestselling book, Sex and the Single Girl, emphasised in Brown’s chatty, confrontational style that it was okay for women to enjoy sex, to work for a living, to make no apology for vanity, to choose the individual over the group, to screw the system that screwed them, to remain childless, and to stay unmarried beyond the age of twenty-three. Unlike many on the feminist liberal-left, she embraced materialism (knowing that everything is material) and rejected naturalism (knowing that nothing is natural). She offered little in the way of compromise.

In the America of the early 1960s Brown stood out a mile. Misogyny was inbuilt. Banks refused to lend women credit, making them dependent either on men or glass-ceiling secretarial jobs (women were considered ‘too emotional to write advertising copy’). Even as editor of Cosmopolitan, Brown was refused an invitation to a Hearst company bash because she was a woman. Scanlon quotes a WW2-era marriage and family textbook:

When women work, earn and spend as much as men do, they are going to ask for equal rights with men. But the right to behave like a man [means] also the right to misbehave as he does. The decay of established moralities [comes] about as a by-product.

It is worth highlighting Scanlon’s expansion of this:

Women’s increased promiscuity, evident during the war and documented afterward in the Kinsey Report, became aligned in the national imagination with other postwar threats, namely homosexuality and Communism. A strong nation required strong families, and strong families required both monogamy and women’s subordination. If women were somehow inherently sexual, and sexuality was inherently dangerous, women would have to be rushed into marriage, the only safe place to contain all of that incipient sexuality.

Such was the public consciousness of the time.

Perhaps Scanlon’s most interesting chapters are on Brown’s family and formative years. She was born in 1922, in rural Arkansas. She lost her father at age ten; her sister developed polio and would be confined to a wheelchair for life. Brown learnt from her mother’s mistakes, shackled by family and history to a series of low-rent teaching jobs when she could have dreamed and achieved so much more. Like many successful people, Brown’s success was born of reaction. ‘If you have some daily anguish from some cause that’s not really your fault – a rotten family, bad health, nowhere looks, serious money problems… then rejoice!’ Brown said. ‘These things are your fuel.’

If I have a complaint about Scanlon’s excellent biography it is that she doesn’t spend enough time on the personal side of Helen Gurley Brown. The passages about her family are tender and illuminating (‘I always get out,’ Brown said, of revisiting Arkansas, ‘but what if some day I couldn’t, they wouldn’t let me go… hold me down… make me stay stone still’) but they are only included as part of our understanding of Brown’s development as a feminist. We could have done with a broader focus, especially with a woman who has led such a full life and must have so many stories to tell.

A useful thought-experiment to make when reading about history’s radicals is to imagine that they are writing in your own time. If Helen Gurley Brown came out of nowhere in 2009 what would the reaction be? Would her ideas still sound new or like last century’s news? Something like my thought-experiment came to pass when HBO screened Sex and the City, a hit show about four female New York libertines. The characters could not have been more different from their audience, but under the dazzling scripts and muscular narratives there was a message of hope for all those women trapped in what Rona Jaffe called ‘the rat race to the altar’. You don’t have to do this: another world is possible. Scanlon makes the link explicit in her biography.

There’s an SATC episode where Sam rents a flat in the meatpacking district and invites her friends over for a house party. Soon the four women are drunk and giggly. Sam opens the window and shouts: ‘New York, we have it all… great apartments, great jobs, great men, great sex… when my mother was my age she had three kids and was working all hours…’ Like so many generational struggles, it’s one that may have to be fought again.


Max Dunbar
was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals including Open Wide, Straight from the Fridge and Lamport Court. He also writes articles on politics and religion for Butterflies and Wheels. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry. He is a co-editor of 3:AM and blogs here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, June 12th, 2009.