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.
What's revelatory about the book is the description of what was missing from women's lives before the second wave emerged. Brown infuriated feminists by urging single women to essentially expect payment for their sexual availability -- men, she argued, should buy meals and trinkets, if not hand over actual cash. As awful as this notion is, it forces us to think back to a time when bright young women were locked out of the good jobs in advertising, publishing, law and other fields and herded into such appallingly underpaid secretarial or research roles that they could scarcely make ends meet. Though sometimes marred by a fondness for such PC terms as "problematic" and "oppressor," this primer on our pre-feminist days tells a story worth retelling, and one whose implications are worth reconsidering. For American women are at a crucial turning point.
Friedan's second wave feminism, loosely described, was sincere in its emotional tone, reformist (though many would say radical) in its goals and middle-class or upper-middle-class and overwhelmingly white in terms of its most visible spokeswomen. Its great strength lay in analyzing entrenched gender-based power and challenging it politically, ushering in the great triumphs that made women's lives today possible -- from reproductive rights to Title IX to laws against sexual assault and domestic violence.
But its shortcomings grew more visible with wear: Second wave theory and practice tended toward humorlessness. The movement often saw men and women in opposition (rather than seeing sex discrimination as the enemy). It sometimes viewed domesticity and family life as a trap rather than a potential source of joy for both sexes. It could be puritanical about sexuality, and it often cast a skeptical eye on what it saw as women's frivolous pursuit of romance, fun and fashion.
Then third wave feminism came along, critiquing its staid mothers and reinvigorating -- while simultaneously giving some political heft to -- the kind of gestures Brown had set out in her 1962 manifesto. Third wave feminism is pluralistic, strives to be multiethnic, is pro-sex and tolerant of other women's choices. It has led to an embrace of what was once so politically suspect -- the notion that you can be a "lipstick lesbian" or a "riot grrrl" if you want to be, that you can choose your persona and your freedom for yourself.
But that very individualism, which has been great for feminism's rebranding, is also its weakness: It can be fun and frisky, but too often, it's ahistorical and apolitical. As many older feminists justly point out, the world isn't going to change because a lot of young women feel confident and personally empowered, if they don't have grass-roots groups or lobbies to advance woman-friendly policies, help women break through the glass ceiling, develop decent work-family support structures or solidify real political clout.
Feminism had to reinvent itself -- there was no way to sustain the uber-seriousness and sometimes judgmental tone of the second wave. But feminists are in danger if we don't know our history, and a saucy tattoo and a condom do not a revolution make.
The fact is, we know the answers to Western women's problems: The way is mapped out, the time for theory is pretty much over. We know the laws and the policies we need to achieve full equality. What we lack is a grass-roots movement that will drive the political will. "Lipstick" or lifestyle feminism won't produce that movement alone.
As Scanlon puts it: "Ever the optimist, [Brown] chose to see pleasure where others saw danger, allies where others saw oppressors, and opportunities where others saw obstacles. If other feminists could be faulted for overemphasizing the ways in which women were victimized, Helen Gurley Brown can be faulted for underemphasizing women's workplace and personal challenges."
Surely we can find a way between the merely personal and the mostly political -- a synthesis of Brown and Friedan. If Michelle Obama's generation is getting closer to it, maybe Sasha's and Malia's generation will find it at last.
Naomi Wolf is the author of "Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries."