Was Helen Gurley Brown really a Cosmo Girl?

Image of Cosmo Magazine editor Helen Gurley Brown

In 1953 Hugh Hefner’s Playboy offered single men a glamorous life of escape and fantasy. Fast cars, beautiful women, and the newest styles were all the college man needed to be a status symbol on campus. Twelve years later, Helen Gurley Brown offered women similar freedoms—sex outside marriage, racy clothes, and “girl power”—when she took the helm of Cosmopolitan in 1965. Certainly Playboy has left its cultural mark, but it was Cosmopolitan—and the special brand of feminism embodied by Brown, its long-time editor who died yesterday at the age of 90—that for better or for worse changed the way three generations of women thought about femininity.

Helen Gurley Brown’s tenure as editor of Cosmopolitan began after her 1963 book Sex and the Single Girl caused a stir among feminists and conservatives alike for its thesis encouraging women to embrace men, sexuality and their feminine freedoms. Brown argued that a girl did not need to be married to have fun, have sex, or flirt. “During your best years you don’t need a husband,” writes Brown in her book. “You do need a man of course every step of the way, and they are often cheaper emotionally and a lot more fun by the dozen.” To achieve the “single bliss” so desirable in Brown’s thesis, there is one catch: “You have to work like a son of a bitch.” Given the tool of a periodical to disseminate this message, Brown created a how-to magazine from one of the crucial lines of her book: “If you would like the good single life … you can’t afford to leave any facet of you unpolished.”

While feminists like Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer were scandalized by Brown’s “Cosmo Girls,” and family focused scholars cringed at her casual attitude toward premarital sex and her dim view of traditional marriage, Cosmopolitan, previously a staid literary journal, was transformed into a monthly bible of self-improvement based on these values and has continued to sell millions, educating at least three generations of women on the details of courtship, careers and fashions.

Said Brown in a June 1970 editorial:

Like many other women I’ve come to respect [the women’s liberation movement] late in the day, thinking at first that it was just an attack by a few hostile nutburgers who were giving ALL women a bad name . . . How does Cosmo fit in? The girl this magazine is edited for loves men . . . doesn’t feel alive unless she’s in love and giving to a man and because there is a shortage (5 million more single girls than men not counting the large homosexual population which stacks the statistics even further against her) she works, yes works, at being a living doll. And that perhaps is where we and Women’s Lib part company. We are pleasing men not because they demand it or to get anything material from them, but because we adore them, love to sleep with them, want one of our own, and there aren’t enough to go around! The Cosmo girl doesn’t live through men, however, or through children.[1]

Cosmopolitan embodied the “have-it-all” attitude of feminism, but embraced men, rather than rejecting them. Brown was convinced that woman-as-sex-object and woman-as-feminist were not incompatible, and that being single was not just a holding pattern until marriage came along; it was a way of life.

More than a decade ago, I wrote my master’s thesis on changing dating and marriage patterns as seen through men’s and women’s magazines. Cosmopolitan occupied much of my time. Among my findings: Early Cosmo was pro-relationships and marriage, while present-day Cosmo seemed only pro-sex. According to my content analysis, there had been a dramatic shift under Brown’s editorship. When Cosmopolitan magazine discussed men in 1965, almost 90% of the articles centered on marriage and children, with just a few pieces offering first-date advice. By 2000, there had been a complete reversal: Only 5% of articles about men focused on marriage, while the majority of the articles were geared toward short-term dating and sex tips. There was also a marked increase in negative articles about marriage. In 1965, 82% of the articles spoke of marriage in a positive or neutral tone, while in 2000, only 33% of articles viewed marriage in non-negative tones.

But it was the articles and advice that summed up Brown’s mode of “girl power” better than any statistics. The formula of the modern-day Cosmopolitan focuses on sex, beauty, fashion, romance, and dieting tips occupy most of the editorial content, with celebrity and sensational tales occupying the rest, geared toward the “fun, fearless female.” A typical current issue would have an article on:

  • How to improve your sexual repertoire (“Make Him Ache For You: Our 6 Frisky Phrases Will Have Him Burning Up By Bedtime”)
  • New fashions (“Cosmo-tize Your Clothes”)
  • The latest personal hygiene trends (“You Say: Ow! He Says: Wow! The Naked Truth About the Brazilian Bikini Wax”)
  • Advice on how to attract and get rid of a man (“5 Guys to Do Before you Say ‘I Do’”)
  • “Expert” advice on health, beauty, and relationship issues (“Cleavage Crisis”)
  • Career advice (“Cosmo Careers: What to do when the gossip’s about you”)
  • A column from “his point of view” (“Four Habits He Says He Hates (but Secretly Loves)”)
  • Celebrity news (“Inside Hollywood: The Great Escape”)
  • And several sensational stories of life in the fast lane (“The Scary Truth About Ecstasy”)

The tone of the magazine is conversational and gossipy, yet intimate, attempting to mimic slumber-party chats among close girlfriends. The articles in Cosmopolitan today are short and heavily illustrated with photos of women dressed in the latest fashions, with many pages of charts and easy-to-read anecdotes rather than full articles.

 Cosmopolitan in 1965 was a different although recognizable older sister to today’s magazine. Men were the focus of the magazine, but sex was not. In addition to a cover story on the “Low Will-Power High Protein Diet,” the August 1965 Cosmopolitan ran an in-depth piece on “The Young Unfaithful Husband,” a list of advice titled “38 Ways to Coddle A Man,” an article explaining “Why Men Up and Leave,” a description of “The World’s Greatest Lover,” which included more details of candle-light dinners than Kama Sutra positions, and a piece on how to travel abroad as a single woman. Fiction, romance and mystery novel excerpts occupied almost half the magazine, with beauty tips and fashion spreads scattered throughout, but less frequently than in the modern magazine. The tone of the magazine was conversational, as it would be in 2000, though less familiar. Articles were longer—three or four pages of solid text versus one page of short paragraphs and photos—and there were fewer graphics.

Despite the visual differences between Cosmopolitan in 1965 and today, the tone has remained remarkably static: saucy and sexy. As American culture became more sexually explicit, Cosmopolitan pushed the limits by discussing, in increasing detail, every aspect of a woman’s life—from visits to the gynecologist to diagrams of a man’s erogenous zones. And the magazine, under Brown’s direction, pushed limits at every turn: In 1965 when fewer than 1% of men and women lived together unless married, Cosmopolitan ran a feature titled “The Affair v. Marriage,” outlining the pros and cons of cohabitation.In 1975 the magazine offered a checklist for readers to decide whether or not to sleep over at a man’s house. The author cautions a woman against sleeping with a man who has “an empty cracker box, three girlie magazines, Band-Aids, a heating pad, an athletic supporter [or] a pile of junk mail” near his bed. However, if the man has “an alarm clock-radio and a copy of the Kama Sutra,” a girl should be more interested in sex with him.

Under Brown’s leadership, Cosmopolitan offered a highly stylized guide to how to be a fashionable woman of the times that played on women’s insecurities and fantasies. The average 31-year-old, college-educated, middle-income subscriber does not lead a life of threesomes, micro-mini-skirts, office affairs, or celebrity-run-ins. Young women still prioritize marriage and commitment—just as they did in 1965—and the vast majority of single Americans only have one sexual partner in any given year. The Cosmo Girl may be seen as the response to the desires of the Playboy Man, and a failure of feminism. Or she could be seen as an outlandish example of sexual expression, and a fantasy that women toy with but few act upon.

Love her or hate her, Brown created a magazine that challenged and changed the way young women thought about dating, sex and their bodies. It is disappointing that Cosmopolitan has had such little regard for marriage in recent decades, especially because of the 50-year loving and committed relationship that Helen had with her husband, David Brown. But, as current editor Kate White describes Cosmopolitan, it’s “a magazine you get in bed with, or into the bathtub . . . Our reader sees the magazine as delicious, not necessarily good for her. The information is helpful, certainly, but it’s not like eating oatmeal. It’s more like a margarita.” And because of the inspiration and advice of Helen Gurley Brown, it’s been a very powerful cocktail for more than 50 years.

Previously on Acculturated:

Dr. Christine B. Whelan is an author, speaker and professor. She is one of the foremost experts on the genre of self-help literature and her latest publication is Generation WTF: From “What the %#[email protected]?” to a Wise, Tenacious, and Fearless You.

[1] Ray, p. 54