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Tuesday
Aug142012

THE MOST LIBERATED WOMAN IN THE WORLD DIED AT AGE 90

THE EDITOR of COSMO
HAD MORE TO DO WITH
WOMEN'S LIBERATION
THAN STEINEM & FONDA

 

By Lew Marcus

Editor

Helen Gurley Brown died yesterday and most people just said, "who?" and went about their day. TheyEDITOR LEW MARCUS had no idea of her monumental impact on modern sexuality and modern feminism. When her fame was qualified by the revelation she was the former editor of Cosmopolitan, the only context people of today could understand was the Cosmo that passed on sex tips and told women how to be more sexual and sexually active.

   My own 20-year-old daughter had no idea why I was writing a piece on the death of someone whose magazine I tried to keep away from her until she entered college. "Who's she, Daddy?" my darling said to me when I told her what I was doing. For her Cosmo is the magazine that has on the August cover "52 Sex Tips" and "Turn Him on From Across the Room." It's the magazine that taught her to use too much eye shadow and way too much metallic bronzer that stains her skin, the sink, the shower curtain, the wall outside her bathroom and most of the towels.

   For me, Helen's Cosmo was the vehicle that set women free in the 1960s and they didn't even know it. Helen Gurley Brown --she never lost her maiden name-- was the most effective feminist ever because no one really understood just how much a revolutionary she really was.

   As a matter of fact, Helen was looked down upon by the leaders of the women's movement during the Cultural Revolution. Betty Friedan, the author of Feminine Mystique and the founder of NOW (National Organization of Women), and Gloria Steinem, the New York Magazine writer who went on to found the Women's Media Center with activist Jane HELEN GURLEY BROWN in the dayFonda, gave Helen no  credit. And Steinem should have known better. Her second biggest story in her career was an expose on what it was like being a Playboy Bunny. I always loved the undercover photos of Steinem, the feminist, in a bunny costume with a little bunny tale and push-me-up tits.

   Friedan didn't click with me in those heady days of the social upheaval of the 60s. She was a Marxist turned social revolutionary. For me she represented that era of frumpy Jewish refugees from Russia who brought to the United States this socialist workers credo and an ethos of liberationism. I was all for those ideals of equality. I just didn't like its militant trappings.

   But Friedan and Steinem were not advocating the violent overthrow of the United States government. They just wanted woman to be free. Free of the shackles of society, home, marriage and even law. Women, they espoused, should be free to have equal access to society, to have meaningful careers, to have access to political power, to make a difference. Yet, while guys like me agreed with everyHELEN in recent days aim they preached and supported their movement with dedication, it was Helen Gurley Brown who really instilled passion in what Friedan et al had made a sterile mess of with their tepid slogans, mottos and rallying cries.

   Helen told women they could have it all and she sold the notion from the pages of a magazine she was entrusted with because all the men before her had made it a bungled mess. When Helen took over Cosmopolitan in 1965, it was a losing proposition. It was tanking in readership. Advertisers were running for better numbers in the myriad of other great publications: Esquire, Vanity Fair, Look, Life, Redbook, Good Housekeeping, Playboy.

   Helen was a consummate student of human society. She should have been. She came from one of theBETTY FRIEDAN today best teaching institutions in the world. No, not the non-descript college she went to, but the advertising agency she joined as a secretary. By the time she had taken over Cosmo, I was studying her old advertising agency, Foote Cone & Belding, at Penn State. This was one of the greats with diamond accounts like Zenith (radios and televisions), Dole (fruit), Fritos, Sunbeam (kitchen appliances), Sara Lee and Ralston-Purina. At one time, they controlled all advertising for Lucky Strike cigarettes, Pepsodent toothpaste, Dial soap, and Hiram Walker Whiskey. This was Helen's university where she learned sociology, geo-politics, psychology, media manipulation and the power of both the word and the image.

   While Friedan and Steinem et al pushed for equality in hiring, access to elected office and equal pay, Helen Gurley Brown was on a different track. She was teaching the young women of the 60s that they could have everything. Her 1962 book, Sex and the Single Girl, taught that women could have love, sex and money -- and they didn't have to be married to enjoy all three. You didn't get more revolutionary than that.

GLORIA STEINEM in her Bunny Costume   My appreciation for Helen came in the early 70s after I had graduated Penn State, worked in New York and Boston and had finally come home to Scranton for a job on the hometown rag. I was living in the Poconos with a college buddy who had met a Dutch girl in Morocco when he was traveling after graduation. She came to the States that summer from Holland with her husband, a clarinetist who had won a fellowship with the Boston Symphony in residence at the Berkshire Arts Festival for the summer. She was bored in rural western Massachusetts and talked my roommate into rescuing her from her terminal boredom. Sidney had an intense job and a very possessive girl friend, so it fell to me to entertain Rik.

   As I got to know her and have my world experience expanded listening to her talk of her life in Europe, this whole Friedan/Steinem vs. Brown thing really struck a chord. Rik laughed about the sexless aspect of the women's liberation movement. She didn't burn her bras. She didn't wear them to begin with. She wasn't shackled by her husband's image of marriage. She subscribed to her own code of conduct. When I questioned what he husband thought of her have affairs on him, she laughed all that harder. "You don't understand how liberated women are in Europe. We are not held back by these Victorian conventions. As long as my husband knows what I am doing and he agrees, I am free to do anything," she explained.

   "The best thing that you don't understand here in America," she educated me, "is that you don't have to lose your sexuality to be liberated. You can have it all."

   There it was: Helen Gurley Brown in my living room. You can have it all. As long as you were truthful and honest, you can have it all.

   More than 40 years later, Rik is in her native Holland, married to her second husband and at one timeJANE FONDA learning liberationism the national ballroom dance champion. I'm in Scranton with my wife of 35 years, still stirring the pot and writing about how the days gone by run into the days still to come. My oldest daughter is practicing law in New York City -- a high-powered and successful lawyer still using Marcus as her last name and having it all: marriage, career, respect, and fun. My younger daughter has no idea what the women's liberation movement is all about. She was born into the liberation that Helen worked so hard to achieve. Neither of them ever heard of Pepsodent toothpaste and Pall Mall cigarettes or Toni hair products.

   But my daughters know something their mother never knew at their age: that they can be anything they want and no one can take that away from them. It's not something a father wants to think about in respect to his daughters, but, thanks to Helen, they can have sex, love and money. And as long as they are truthful and honest, what is the matter with that?