When Helen Gurley Brown was a junior high student in Little Rock, Arkansas, her teacher asked the class a seemingly innocuous question: Who was the most important person to them in the world? After garnering a host of conventional responses (Mom! Dad! God! FDR!), the teacher declared, to the contrary, “The most important person to any of you is yourself.” This proved a decisive moment for the future magazine editor, who proclaimed in a 1968 Time interview, “I’m a materialist and it’s a materialistic world. Nobody is keeping a woman from doing everything she wants to do but herself.”
Because she has focused on the individual rather than the collective and hasn’t viewed consumer culture as anathema to feminism, Brown has been omitted from the second-wave canon rather than revered as one of its pioneers, argues Jennifer Scanlon. Inclusion is the most quintessential characteristic of “Gurley girl feminism,” which celebrates the single woman’s embrace of work, men, sex, and money. In Bad Girls Go Everywhere, the first, unauthorized biography of Brown, the notoriously opinionated editor emerges a populist champion of the everywoman.
Though her Depression-era upbringing was marked by hardship, Brown, a self-described “mouseburger” (a woman of average looks and intelligence), insisted that adversity was fuel rather than obstacle. She worked her way through business college and held seventeen secretarial jobs before becoming editor of Cosmopolitan in 1965; she was unashamedly, swingingly single in the ’50s, a time when unattached women were seen as social delinquents. In 1958, the year before she married film executive David Brown at the age of thirty-seven, it was between the ages of fifteen and nineteen that American women were most likely to get married.
Scanlon focuses on two of Brown’s greatest professional triumphs—the publication of her first book, Sex and the Single Girl (1962), and her thirty-two-year editorship of Cosmopolitan—and some revealing tidbits are dug up along the way. For instance, after the publication of Sex and the Single Girl, Brown and Letty Cottin, the book’s publicity director, conspired without success to get it censored to increase sales. When it came to navigating the sometimes-conservative management of Cosmo, Brown could be equally aggressive, though had she been given fuller editorial freedom, Scanlon argues, she would have seen to it that the magazine tackled topics considered taboo by her superiors, such as lesbianism and masturbation.
The Cosmo girl—who needed neither baby nor husband and embraced both capitalism and beauty culture—was an extension of Brown’s persona, one she had energetically promoted in Sex and the Single Girl. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was published the following year, and Scanlon astutely juxtaposes the two women: Both had unfulfilled mothers and promoted working women, but whereas Friedan’s reader was the married, settled woman, Brown’s was the single girl who performed femininity as much as she manipulated it. For Friedan, the female self had been submerged and subverted by conventional femininity; Brown, Scanlon argues, rallied for female agency and against “the victim label.”
Scanlon’s portrait of Brown is not wholly positive: She faults her subject for viewing motherhood as an obstacle to women’s liberation and for stressing that men need to be manipulated. The book is meticulously researched (Scanlon had complete access to Brown’s papers), but the author struggles to balance a portrait of a formidable woman with an analysis of a cultural icon. One is left with a vivid picture of Brown’s public persona but a murkier one of her private self.
The saying “Good Girls Go to Heaven, Bad Girls Go Everywhere” is embroidered on a pillow that adorns Brown’s office at Cosmopolitan, where she is now editor of international editions. If Scanlon had more fully embraced either critical biography or cultural criticism, her book might have been less deferential and more probing, less cautious and more brazen: in short, closer in spirit to Helen Gurley Brown herself.