With the publication of “Sex and the Single Girl” that year, Brown unleashed an argument that would revolutionize women’s lives for decades afterward: Women feel sexual desire, and they come by that feeling naturally. But she cared as much about women’s financial lives as she did their sex lives. In fact, she believed that a healthy sex life depended, at least in part, on a healthy financial life.
Paying tribute to Brown as a sort of postwar Suze Orman may seem like a less-than-fun way to reminisce about the queen of Cosmo, but it’s an important part of the revolution she started. “I deal in reality,” Brown liked to say, and the making and spending of money formed a big part of everyday life for her legions of readers.
A child of the Great Depression, Brown learned early in life that money matters, and she never relinquished her Depression-era sensibility about finances. Her father died when she was 10, and her mother, Cleo, who had years earlier given up her teaching career at the request of her husband, struggled to raise Helen and her sister, Mary. When Mary contracted polio, Helen moved into the role of primary wage-earner. Even though she had been valedictorian of her high school class, Helen did what many women of her generation did: She went to “business school,” which meant that she learned typing and other skills in the morning and worked at a radio station as a junior secretary in the afternoon.
Then, and for years afterward, she played a vital role in her family but also craved independence; achieving that balance required frugality, not extravagance. Decades later, as editor of Cosmopolitan, she would admonish her workers, her “girls,” when they spent their hard-earned money on the equivalent of today’s skinny vanilla latte. Why, she would ask, weren’t they putting that money into their bank accounts?
In 1962, finances formed an important aspect of “Sex and the Single Girl.” Brown wanted her readers to be able to live singly “in superlative style,” so they had to learn money management. “It does take money to be successfully single — for clothes, an apartment, vacations, entertainment,” she advised.
Brown knew that her readers’ prospects were somewhat limited. By then, she had worked in enough jobs where she mentored the men who became her bosses to know the frustrations of the glass ceiling. Nevertheless, optimistic to the core, she maintained that even if her readers never earned huge salaries, they could thrive through careful economy. “I have known girls making $100 a week,” she wrote, “who have bailed out their idiot boyfriends who had $25,000-a-year salaries.”