I’ve mentioned my book group before – the ultimate cheap night in – before. We met up last week to discuss the wonderful Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright, but the last book I chose for the book group was Bad Girls Go Everywhere, on the life of famed editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, Helen Gurley Brown, who died last month.
Whether Gurley’s Brown editorship of Cosmo helped advance or hinder women’s equality has long been debated. Did Cosmo articles like ’50 ways to please your man’ and front covers featuring models in bikinis do future generations of young women a disservice, or did Gurley Brown advance women’s equality by encouraging them to pursue their own careers and live independently? Both, I think. Whilst some of Gurley Brown’s philosophies, like making men pay for all the drinks all the time on principle, are hopelessly out of step today, she also introduced careers and money sections to Cosmo and did more than any other magazine in the sixties and seventies to encourage women to take control of their own finances.
‘Saving Money is Sexy’ she declared, a very different, far bolder, message than that given out by the other womens magazines that were publishing when Gurley assumed Cosmo editorship in the early sixties. When these other mags bothered to write about money at all it was to advise on how to make the most of the housekeeping allowance or cook budget-savvy family meals. Gurley, on the other hand, encouraged women to have careers, save for flash cars if they wanted them and find ways to live in city apartments on their own or with girlfriends if they chose.
Basically, she encouraged young, single women to get smart about money, then to have fun spending it as they chose: a radical message at a time when snagging a husband was still seen as the chief way to a financially comfortable lifestyle.
Gurley Brown advocated that single women build savings and build a portfolio of shares, however small, and three decades before Sex and the City she created the image of single urban women building careers and enjoying financial independence without husbands.
One of her proudest moments, she said, happened way before she became editor of Cosmo when, as an advertising copy writer, she bought a Mercedes for $5,000 cash, having saved hard and haggled hard too. Though she built up great wealth through a successful career and book sales, Gurley Brown was a skint girl at heart, one who, till the end of her days, took a homemade tuna salad to the office every day for lunch and admonished the younger women at Cosmo for wasting money on shop-bought sandwiches. RIP Helen Gurley Brown, who inspired millions of women to be that little bit less skint in the city.