Scanlon (Gender and Women’s Studies/Bowdoin Coll.; Inarticulate Longings: The Ladies’ Home Journal, Gender, and the Promises of Consumer Culture, 1995, etc.) examines the significance of second-wave feminist Helen Gurley Brown, longtime editor of Cosmopolitan magazine and author of the classic Sex and the Single Girl (1962).
The author argues that, despite her notoriety during the movement’s most turbulent decade, Brown “has largely been left out of established histories of postwar feminism’s emergence and ascendance.” This book—part biography and part cultural history of Brown’s role in shaping contemporary ideas of career women and their sexuality—serves as a corrective to that historical omission. Narrating Brown’s life story—from her impoverished youth as a “Depression-era child raised by a depressed mother” to her commercial success as an author, cultural spokeswoman and the editor of one of the nation’s most visible fashion magazines—Scanlon explores the tension between Brown’s surprisingly traditional marriage and her advocacy of sexual exploration for ambitious young career girls. Her early writings gave single women advice on how to conduct mutually satisfying affairs with married men and suggested that bachelors “must recognize that part of the price of their freedom and privilege is…paying for women.” Yet it was a point of domestic pride that she cooked meals for her husband during their married life. Scanlon successfully places Brown in the larger context of the era and reveals how her brand of feminism influenced mass-media portraits of single career women from the Mary Tyler Moore Show to Sex and the City. However, the complexities of Brown’s character remain largely unexplored. Scanlon provides only passing references to her husband’s financial control of her royalties, to her fixation on remaining “ultra-thin” and to her role in the internal gender politics at Cosmopolitan.
An informed reassessment of Brown’s public life, more satisfying as a cultural study than as a biography.