To commemorate the death of the iconic and controversial Cosmo editor, I thought I'd pull this article from my archives, which is a joint review of Jennifer Scanlon's biography of Gurley Brown and Masters of Sex by Thomas Maier, about the sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson.
In an adoring new biography, Bad Girls Go Everywhere, Jennifer Scanlon reopens the old debate about whether Gurley Brown can really be considered a feminist. That, of course, depends on one's definition of feminism. Undoubtedly, through her books and in the pages of Cosmopolitan, Gurley Brown encouraged young women to enjoy sex and to embrace, at least during their twenties, the single life. Her frank discussion of sexually active dating was offensive to many early-1960s readers and certainly pushed the culture toward accepting that even "good girls" engage in premarital sex. Considering Gurley Brown's influence, Scanlon, who previously wrote a cultural history of Ladies Home Journal, the staid magazine for housewives, goes to great lengths to portray Gurley Brown as a proto-second-wave feminist — a sort of libertarian Betty Friedan, more concerned with fun than with whining about women's "victimization."
But it is only after immersing oneself in the back catalog of Ladies Home Journal that one could really mistake Cosmopolitan as radically feminist. Like Hugh Hefner, Gurley Brown was not just a magazine editor but the purveyor of a fantasy-lifestyle brand. The product Gurley Brown sold didn't purport to fix, or even address, the real economic and career anxieties facing midcentury American women. Rather, Cosmo proffered an escapist alternate reality in which every woman could distract herself with a work-related dating life as glamorous as the one Gurley Brown experienced in the Hollywood of the 1940s and 1950s. For Gurley Brown, Scanlon writes, the office was "a decidedly sexy environment," not the site of daily humiliations for women relegated to serving as "office wives," making coffee and picking up laundry for frequently lewd, condescending male bosses. Knowing that Gurley Brown experienced these privations in her own career only makes her wildly optimistic view of the intersection of sex and work seem more peculiar.