Book Review: 'Bad Girls Go Everywhere : The Life of Helen Gurley Brown' by Jennifer Scanlon

By Naomi Wolf
Sunday, May 3, 2009

Bad Girls Go Everywhere

The Life of Helen Gurley Brown

By Jennifer Scanlon

Oxford Univ. 270 pp. $27.95

Look at Michelle Obama: She has segued seamlessly from an active professional life as a highly paid hospital executive to her current incarnation as fashion plate, doting mom and demure sex object, posing for Vogue in a hot fuchsia frock that shows plenty of skin. What's most surprising about this metamorphosis? How few people are objecting to it.

Every other first lady in living memory has been flattened into some stereotype of either/or femininity -- from Nancy Reagan as adoring Stepford wife to Hillary Clinton as shrill career woman. But now we finally seem to have reached the point where women don't face a false choice between sacrificing their softer qualities to be taken seriously as professionals or embracing love, sensuality, fashion and pleasure only to be dismissed as frivolous. And this revolutionary development isn't unfolding just in the White House: It's now affecting your house and mine. It's everywhere.

So what happened? Well, when it comes to women's rights, Americans have clearly matured. What has helped that process along is that stealthily, quietly, second wave feminism -- the movement personified by Betty Friedan and her 1963 bestseller, "The Feminine Mystique" -- has been supplanted by "third wave" feminism, with its more upbeat and individualistic signature.

And how timely that at this moment of next-generation triumph we have a new biography of an icon whose optimistic, go-getter vision of female emancipation helped bring on that third wave. Yes, it's that leopard-print-wearing provocateuse, Helen Gurley Brown.

"Sex and the Single Girl," Brown's brash, breezy and sometimes scandalous young-woman's guide to thriving in the Mad Men and Playboy era, made headlines the year before Friedan's severe, profound manifesto burst onto the scene. Since then, the media and the women's movement itself have put these two icons in opposition, pitting Friedan's intellectual, ideological, group-oriented feminism against Brown's pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, girl-power style. They contrast the Seven-Sisters-educated, brainy, politically serious Friedan with the working-class, aspirational and funny Brown, who claimed that a woman could be happy whether single or married, that she could have sex on her own terms, and that she should refuse to see herself as a victim and have fun.

For the past 40 years, as Jennifer Scanlon points out in "Bad Girls Go Everywhere," her cracking new biography of Brown, serious feminists have derided the longtime Cosmopolitan editor's claim to a version of feminism. They have attacked her as too optimistic, too politically incorrect and too frothy. But Scanlon makes a solid case that, apart from her easy-to-satirize excesses, Brown is a genuinely important figure who pioneered a feminism that championed women as cheerful, self-empowered individualists, that held that "every woman has something that makes her unique and gifted; pursuing beauty can be a delightful endeavor, not just a preoccupation; sex is among the best things in life; and men are not the enemy."

And guess what? In the long battle between the two styles of feminism, Brown, for now, has won. Just look at the culture around us. Ms. Magazine, the earnest publication that defined feminism in the 1970s and '80s, has been replaced on college women's dorm room shelves by sexier, sassier updates such as Bitch and Bust. The four talented, smart -- and feminist -- women of "Sex and the City," who are intent on defining their own lives but are also willing to talk about Manolos and men, look more like Brown's type of heroine than "Sisterhood Is Powerful" readers. The stereotype of feminists as asexual, hirsute Amazons in Birkenstocks that has reigned on campus for the past two decades has been replaced by a breezy vision of hip, smart young women who will take a date to the right-on, woman-friendly sex shop Babeland.

In fast-paced, energetic prose, Scanlon, a professor of gender and women's studies at Bowdoin College, tells the story of a young self-described "mouseburger" who was raised in Arkansas during the Depression, who never graduated from college but wrote a bestseller that sold in 28 countries and who became, for a quarter-century, the voice of one of America's most influential women's magazines.

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