Affluent women have always had their advocates in America and in American feminism. Helen Gurley Brown spoke to a different population about different goals. She was the first mainstream feminist to give working-class and lower-middle-class young women their own aspirational mission, their own sense that the sky was the limit. Her Cosmo is easily mocked for glorifying fur-covered water beds and perfect manicures, but we shouldn’t forget that Brown also introduced the idea that working-class young women should be financially savvy, speak up for themselves politically and not wait around for the knight in shining armor. Her feminism didn’t look like Betty Friedan’s more earnest, strategic version, but its broad appeal—stressing fun, personal empowerment, energetic optimism and affection for men instead of a pitched gender war—had important lessons.
She will also be remembered for handing women a manifesto about their right to sexual pleasure whether or not they were married—a claim that changed the face of the sexual revolution. She was much more radical than her cheerful, designer-clad persona might have suggested.
Wolf is the author of The Beauty Myth and, more recently, Vagina: A New Biography
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