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Childfree people in history: Helen Gurley Brown

By Victoria Fryer 

Helen Gurley Brown is a well-known figure, but divisive in that some people call her a progressive feminist, and others vehemently disagree with that statement. Brown, who died in 2012, is perhaps most famous for her 32 years at Cosmopolitan magazine as editor-in-chief. It was there—and in books she published, like Sex and the Single Girl (1962) and Having it All (1982)—where she espoused her sex-positive philosophy.

In many ways, Brown tried to redefine what it meant to be a woman. As a New York Times article says of Brown: “[I]f, in 1963, sex did cease to be quite so clandestine a pleasure—especially for unmarried females—that was, in part, her doing.”

But was that philosophy liberating for women, or regressive? It’s a question often debated when people talk about Brown’s legacy. Today, Cosmopolitan magazine is not viewed as a particularly feminist publication (an understatement, perhaps). Instead, much of its content is focused on how to please men.

In addition, Brown believed in working hard to make oneself attractive. As she is reported in the NYT as saying, “What you have to do is work with the raw material you have, namely you, and never let up.”

However, Brown was also a hard-working, savvy business woman who put much effort into her career. And she was in favor of all women working. She believed in women being self-sufficient. The NYT article writes, “It was always against her principles to quit her day job—’A job gives a single woman something to be’—but not against them to work the night shift as a kept woman.”

Commonly among more famous childfree or childless women, we see those who have worked as an activist for women’s rights and been very focused on careers. Brown believed that women should be able to pursue more than they had in, say, the 1950s and ‘60s.

Unfortunately, some of her suggested methods for going about that pursuit are in direct conflict with what many of us see as feminist ideals today.

Whether you agree that Brown was a feminist or not, we can’t deny her passion for her work and her ideals. She certainly made a name for herself. But is this the kind of woman that reinforces unfair stereotypes about childless and/or single women? She was, after all, very focused on herself—some might even use the term “selfish.”

I’m curious to hear what others think.

Victoria Fryer is a writer and content strategist. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two pit bulls. You can find her on Twitter @extoria.

Helen Gurley Brown

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