A young woman born after 1990 may not believe it, but there was actually a time in pop culture when sex, if mentioned at all, was only intimated–not shown in explicit detail on big screens and not discussed with lewd language and gestures. That time was, of course, the early 20th century, before the sexual revolution of the ’60s reconfigured the way we looked at sex–especially as it related to women. Before the ’60s, it was publicly understood that only women who were “loose” and “amoral” would even consider having sex before marriage–and that women who were married should only want sex in order to procreate, not for enjoyment (and they certainly shouldn’t be the ones to initiate it).
Imagine society’s chagrin when Helen Gurley Brown published Sex and the Single Girl in 1962, an advice-dispensing tome urging women to become financially independent and sexually empowered. The book sold over two million copies in its first three weeks. It also rocked the country (and the world) to its core, challenging long-held misconceptions about women’s needs, desires, and expectations. Written a year before Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, it was a rollicking page-turner that did less philosophizing than enticing. Brown’s goal was to make her premises seductive and palatable–and she accomplished just that. By the time the book was adapted to film in 1964, with Natalie Wood in the lead, everyone was familiar with its bold and daring suggestions.
Many of Brown’s ideas about single women, financial independence, and sexual liberation remain relevant today. Her New York Times obituary drives home how ahead-of-her-time Brown was, saying of her tenure as editor with Cosmopolitan magazine, when began three years after the publication of Sex and the Single Girl and lasted till 1997, “In Ms. Brown’s hands, Cosmopolitan anticipated “Sex and the City” by three decades.”
As complicated a relationship as black women have historically had with the first (and subsequent) waves of feminism and/or the “women’s liberation movement,” Helen Gurley Brown’s strides toward ensuring that women were not viewed as objects to be acted upon but rather proactive, assertive beings with the capability of making their own choices about money and sex, have had positive implications for all women.
With her passing yesterday at age 90, the world has suffered a significant loss.