Helen Gurley Brown

Having It All?

VTR Date: January 16, 1988

Editor of Cosmopolitan Helen Gurley Brown discusses feminism.


GUEST: Helen Gurley Brown
VTR: 1/16/88

HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. I think I know what it means when her own cv notes that today’s guest is quote, “ … in her own words a health nut and irredeemable but contented workaholic.” But I’ll be doggoned if I know what it means when it also claims that she is a “non-militant feminist.” Indeed, I’m not so sure anymore that I know what it means these days to characterize anyone instead as a militant feminist. But, since this issue won’t, can’t and shouldn’t remain hidden or seemingly go away, I’ve asked Helen Gurley Brown, the long-time, hugely successful Editor of Cosmopolitan magazine to join me here on The Open Mind so that I can pursue it with one who has – in not necessarily equal parts – provoked and prodded on the feminist movement, observed and analyzed it, and herself borne the brunt of some of its angers.

As I said the first time she sat at this table, I like to think that I’m a pretty darn good listener, even though some people believe that’s only because I don’t have nothing much to say. But the fact, of course, is that Helen Gurley Brown is the best of listeners, a superbly empathetic person who draws you out of your own innermost thoughts and, in turn, those thoughts out of you … despite the fact that she has herself had so much to say as Cosmo’s Editor, and as the author, a quarter of a century ago, of Sex and the Single Girl, and, most recently, of Having It All.

And now she’s given a speech at the distinguished Forum Club of Houston, just a few days before recording this program … so that I know a good deal more about what Helen Gurley Brown thinks the lot of women is today … particularly her analysis of what now holds women back from our nation’s really top jobs. And Helen, I want to get to that, find out what does hold them back, though I found out by reading the speech. But what in the world did your cv mean by referring to a “non-militant feminist?” What about that?

BROWN: At the time that I was created … that little phrase … I was so busy defending the idea that women should be adorable and adoring to men, I was so caught up in the idea that men were not the enemy and that we must defend and protect and love men, at the same time we were doing wonderful things for my sex, that I just wanted to sort of indicate, I guess, that I wasn’t mad at men. At the same time I am a devout feminist, I guess that’s why it was stated that particular way. And so indeed, what is a militant feminist? I suppose at the time I thought it was somebody who was very staunchly, loudly vociferously feminist and making a big to-do and a racket about it all. Now I’m not sure that you can be a feminist without being a “militant feminist,” without going the full distance. And I expect to do that and keep doing it. So let’s just say that those phrases sounded right to me at the time, I’m no so sure they do now.

HEFFNER: Helen, this is a sea change then, isn’t it? It’s something of a very real and profound shift in your own thinking?

BROWN: I’m not sure how profound it is. If I can be very personal, the answer is “yes,” there is something of a change in my perception of men and women and feminism.

It happened, I think, about 11 months ago when I became 65, and as I say, I’ve always been so dedicated to the idea of men and women loving each other, going to bed together, I have been totally preoccupied pretty much with that condition. And I was thinking the other day when I went to the dentist, that actually people who look in other people ’s mouths, and they find that exciting and wonderful, so why should I defend the idea that I am forever thinking about men and women and what they do in bed. I never saw a new person, man or woman, without wondering if their sex life was okay, not having to do with me. Anyway, to get to the point …

HEFFNER: That is the point.

BROWN: … the point is that that birthday hit last year and I think I finally recognized that I really cannot be a sex object any longer, myself, except for David, God willing. Men do not think of me as a woman, they think of me as an editor, as a successful person …

HEFFNER: Oh, come on, Helen.

BROWN: Therefore, just in a subtle way, I have veered away from thinking only of, “Are they having an okay sex life? Is he cheating on her? Is she good in bed? Did she have lovers before she married him?” I’ve just stopped being so preoccupied with that idea. And I’m beginning to branch out a little bit and think about other aspects of the feminist movement.

HEFFNER: Now, wait a minute. Does that mean we’re going to have to strike this word “non” and say, “Helen Gurley Brown, a militant feminist?”

BROWN: (Laughter) No, we’re just going to say, “Helen Gurley Brown, feminist.” Okay, I was very personal about what happened to me on the inside that got me to thinking about other aspects of life for women, although I’ve always been dedicated to the idea that women should work and work and love are the big two and “having it all” is ridiculous in terms of just women, men “have it all,” so why shouldn’t women “have it all” … we can get to that if we have time, if you want to, it’s your show, but aside from my personal sea change, this bloody speech, which I had to make in Houston a few days ago, I never make talks, speeches, it’s just too much work, you have to write one and you have to have something to say and it’s a big ordeal, so I got somebody to write it … being of sound mind, why would I do all that work myself … and the speech came in about three weeks before it was to be delivered, it was awful, I couldn’t use a single word of it, I had to get busy and do it myself. So I began to research like a crazy woman, stacks and stacks and stacks of data, material, about women, where we have been, where we are now, and I don’t think I’ll never feel the same way again. It’s wonderful to get educated, it’s just … I know so much more about the whole scene. No wonder Letty Pogrebin and Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem get piqued with me sometimes (laughter), there’s so much I just haven’t known.

HEFFNER: Yes, but I haven’t been piqued with the former Helen Gurley Brown. I wonder what I’m going to have to contend with ..

BROWN: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … with now. But …

BROWN: Well.

HEFFNER: Well, I mean I do wonder. It seems to me that when you speak this way, that we’re in for quite an experience. If you … I mean I began with my introductory remarks saying there had been occasions when you had pushed and prodded on the feminist movement. And you, yourself, had borne the burden of being criticized by some of the people in the feminist movement. This hasn’t gotten under your skin, I hope.

BROWN: No, it never has. And let’s just say at Cosmo, we’re going to be “business as usual,” it’s still going to be work and love or love and work in that order. I still think the man/woman relationship is the most wonderful and delicious and important and all-embracing activity that there can possibly be …

HEFFNER: But you want to get on the barricades now?

BROWN: … and also will continue to say that work is important, which it is. The format at Cosmo, you haven’t asked me about that, that will continue as it is, work and love are equally important and there are not enough men to go around, so, of course, you have to be adorable to men to get one for yourself, hang on to him, if possible. But let’s just say, I have been so subjective, I’ve said, as many successful women do, “Say, look, kiddo, I made it, I’ve worked myself to pieces, nobody helped me, I didn’t have a mentor, I didn’t have a scholarship, I didn’t have a grant, I did it, so why can’t you do it?” I’m just beginning to realize or acknowledge that a lot of women don’t have or have not had my advantages. What were my advantages? I had a militant (laughter) feminist mother, who said, “Kiddo, don’t have babies too fast, there’s more to life than children” and I have a feminist husband who pushes you out the door if you hadn’t got in mind anyway to work your tail off, he would suggest that you remember to do that. And“c,” I didn’t get married, didn’t have children, nothing slowed down my career, so gradually, from those early secretarial days, $6 a week at KHJ in Los Angeles, answering fan mail, I gradually, by age 36 or 37, having started at 18, got to be something. Also I’m a WASP, that doesn’t hurt either, does it, you don’t run into much prejudice, also I look okay, I’m not a great beauty, but I had things going for me that women, generally, or a lot of women, don’t have. They married early, they got out of the workforce, they never had a chance to know how terrific it is to be successful, they have a husband now who doesn’t want them to achieve, they have three children, they had a mother who said, “Kiddo, don’t worry about anything except attracting a man, getting married,” they don’t have the nice pressure that I had. So … I don’t know whether I can do anything on their behalf or not, I’m more interested in the National Abortion Rights Action League than I am in just broad feminism … but we’ll see.

HEFFNER: But, Helen, you know, the strange thing to me is that this sea change that we’ve commented on, comes at a time when seemingly there has been a movement in the other direction on the part of militant feminists.

BROWN: I think that’s when the feminists might need me (laughter) at this point. And incidentally, the feminism movement is alive and very well and the changes that they have wrought are almost unchartable, they have been profound and they have affected every woman in our country, I think including the women that belong to you. Certainly all the women that I know have been affected by the feminist movement.
But …

HEFFNER: What do you mean, “the women that belong who belong to me?” Can you imagine if I said that, Helen, what hell there would be?

BROWN: I’m just being facetious … I’d say the women in your life. But there is dissension in the feminist movement presumably because one group wants to just get equal rights, “Just give us a shot at what men have and we’ll be perfectly happy.” The other side says, “Listen that’s all very well, but as long as women bear the children, you’ve got to give women some special rights, you’ve got to arrange for pregnancy leave and you’ve got to arrange that a woman can have her job back when she gets through working and you’ve got to go for a lot of other things, like child support and day care centers.” So the one side says, “You’re going to screw everything up by asking for all those things and making women ‘special’ in quotes” and this other side says, “We can’t make it unless women have some special privileges.” So they can fight it out. In the meantime, I want to get into the act because women are dropping out and I hear daily that women probably can’t have it all and have now “come to their senses” and are now going to drop some of this horrible responsibility and go back home again or go home a lot of the time. That’s okay, if you want to do that. But it’s not the way it was written in concrete that it’s supposed to be.

HEFFNER: In other words, where is it written that it had to be that way? But this is fascinating. You’re sort of conceding, certainly not defeat, because you’re getting into the fray now in a very … more forthright way, more active way. But you’re saying, if I hear you correctly, “that indeed, in this country in which we go by democratic rule, majorities win, etc. the push is against the feminist movement of the last 20 years.”
BROWN: Well, Betty Friedan says that the younger women can afford to forget feminism and the feminist movement because she and her crowd did it all, so now the others are reaping the benefits of what the “militant” feminists did. But right now there is, not a … backlash wouldn’t describe it, there is a movement of women who have tried to have it all, to not try so hard to have it anymore and I defend what they want to do. If they want to drop out, the movie Baby Boom was all about that. I could kill those people for … you know, there’s a lot of anti-feminism out there, and that movie is one of them which says that if you get to be at the top of your class in terms of achievement and also want to have a child, you can’t do both things. This is the point. Women are now doing two jobs, minimum. Career women, or most career women, they are having their job and they are still homemakers, they’re still responsible for the stuff that goes on at home and they’re having children and basically, women are still the nurturers. They do more of it than men, even 24-year-old fathers are not doing as much nurturing as the girls are.


BROWN: Get to that. So these women are saying, “My God, I can’t go on like this, I’m half crazy, I’m dead, I’m hysterical, so I want to give up some things.” Until we get to the point where men do more of the nurturing and more of the housework, then I guess those women want to drop back a little bit and catch their breaths. I will let them do that, but eventually, if men can have it all, as you always have had, then women can have it all and I don’t want too many of them dropping out, not to have it.

HEFFNER: Helen, who do you know, outside of David Brown, who has it all? I mean this notion that men “have it all,” the last time we spoke, when I looked at the program at home after we taped it, I thought to myself, “How could I have let Helen Gurley Brown get away with that, that ‘you men have it all’.” Nonsense.

BROWN: I’m talking only in terms of the big two or the big three.

HEFFNER: We don’t bear babies.

BROWN: No. You … in terms of “having it all” … you have the family, the children, you have the loving woman, we hope she’s loving, you have a woman, a sex partner, a beloved, and God knows you have your career. The big three. I felt that one of my strengths has been understanding men and feeling compassion for men and knowing that you have it just as rough as I do, emotionally and every other kind of way. Sometimes when I see women beating up on men emotionally, I just get sick. I think, “You beasts, you silly ungrateful, vapid, dopey, irritating woman, don’t you know how wonderful this man is? Do you have any brains at all? The answer is ‘no’.” So, it’s not that I think our lives are more put-upon or stressed than your life, in many ways, men versus women. But it is true it’s easier for you to have the big three … a top job, the husband and the children. And many women have decided they just can’t do that. Twelve people that I interviewed for my talk in Houston, Katherine Graham, Barbara Walters, Jane Pauley, Diane Sawyer, Linda Wachner of Warnaco, Mary Wells Lawrence, Joni Evans of Random House, a whole bunch of women. Out of that group of 12, seven have no children at all and the other five, the kids were out of the house and they don’t have to worry about them anymore. And of that group of 12 women, six were not married and six were. So the top achieving women in this country, they don’t have the big three, most of them.

HEFFNER: Now if I understand, and you’re very, very clear, just let me check through my perceptions, that you’re saying a number of women have backtracked from the feminist push of the last 20 years and they’ve done so because it’s been so difficult. And you want to make that easier for them, you want to make it more possible for them to have that. But what do you do? Do you say to women, “You’ve decided to move away from this militant position. I’m going to stand in your way, I’m going to say, ‘No. No, you must not. No, you cannot’”. Why do you want to spit against the wind?

BROWN: Richard. Richard. I would never tell those specific women that they can’t do what they’ve decided to do and may I say, instantly, I should have mentioned it first, that being a wife and mother, being specifically a homemaker, being exclusively those things and dedicating your life to it, is one of … maybe the most honorable things you can do. I’m so glad some women want only to raise children. How terrific for the children. My mother was one of those. The point is options. You want people to be able to do what is right for them emotionally and professionally. And until we get to the point where women can have it all easily, it’s okay with me if that crowd drops out, but I think gradually we will get to the point where men will do more of the stuff that women have been doing and it will be easier for women. As it stands a lot of MBAs have gotten to the top and they are the ones who are conking out. It’s not that they’re anti-feminism, they’re just thinking themselves that they’re tired and want a little rest.

HEFFNER: Suppose Helen Gurley Brown were to write a new book saying, “I was wrong, you can’t have it all.”

BROWN: I’ll never write that book because you can have it all, there’s no question about it. It’s just that it’s a bloody lot of hard work and if I may mention the reason why, the reasons why a lot of women never get to the top echelons and if they do, they don’t stick, it’s for these three reasons. There is still male chauvinism, there is still sexism, men are not particularly comfortable with women on a level with them, I’ve got tons of research from encyclopedias and U.S. News and Psychology Today and the Wall Street Journal and Fortune all indicating that men are not particularly comfortable with women moguls side by side. So there is this sexism, you’d better not be too loud about it or you’ll get belted or you’ll get sued, but it’s out there. That’s number one. The second reason and a big reason, is the choices that women are given, even enlightened mothers who say, “Go out there and have a terrific job, my darling,” at the same time they’re saying to their daughters, “Have the good job. Terrific. But, of course, you’ll get married, and you’ll probably have children. And when you do …” it’s sort of understood that the women can leave and she doesn’t ever have to go back in the workforce if she doesn’t want to. She’s got options, it’s never dinned in our dear little heads that we’ve got to hang in there forever and ever. A man doesn’t have those options, he’s told he will be supporting a family, he’d better get his fanny out the door to start working and stay at it until he dies or retires. And the third reason women don’t necessarily have it all, at the top, I mean they can’t get to be CEOs or board chairmen or presidents or moguls very easily is because, as we said, before, we have the babies. And babies slow down our career. Not yours. We’re the ones who stay home and we do the nurturing if a child is sick, even if we go right back to our jobs immediately, the kid is sick, you’re the one who goes home and takes care of him and checks in with the daycare center. We’re responsible for the nannies and the helpers. So those three things make it very hard to become Margaret Thatcher. A few people make it, but it ain’t easy.

HEFFNER: All right. There haven’t been so many more people who have become President of the United States, either, given the burdens that are upon us. But that’s a diversion. Helen, what you’re saying, obviously, is all true. The three big reasons that you mentioned. The attitudes of the external world, the attitudes of the internal world and the fact of having babies. What do you recommend? Not having babies?

BROWN: No. I’m going to say again … this is just in the interests of choice. Most women, as most men, do not want to be moguls or CEOs or board chairmen. It’s the last thing they want, they’d be lousy at it and they would hate it. We’re only talking about what a woman who does want those particular things might do. And these are my five requirements. You need brains, people don’t talk much about that, but you do need to have some intelligence to get those jobs and you need to have drive, you need to need it and want it and where drive comes from we’re not sure, probably from early deprivation or whatever it is that makes you have to go for what you need, drive. Then you may need to postpone having the babies until your late 20’s or 30’s, so that you get your career solidly started first. Or you may decide that you don’t want to have children at all, that’s okay, too. My research indicates very strongly that there is no such thing as a mothering instinct. Now that’s rather iconoclastic but it’s probably all inculcated. There’s no such thing as a “natural” want to have children, it’s created as you go along. Some men have it more than women.

So a woman may not have children or if she does, she’s got to get over her guilt by having somebody else help take care of them, if she’s going to be a big achiever. And she needs a man who not only lets her achieve and says, “Anything you want, darling,” she needs a man who will practically push her out the door and say, “Go to it, baby. I want you to and you must. You must realize these needs.” I don’t think talent has much to do with it because we’ve all got some of that. I don’t think luck has much to do with it because we all get a lot of luck. But those are the big four.

HEFFNER: But you’re talking about those big items in terms of a comparatively few women, right?

BROWN: Yes, they’re so minuscule in number. Now there are just three women who head the Fortune 400 companies and two of those women started their own companies. And there are only three percent women members of boards of directors, it’s so minuscule now that we have to be better than that.

HEFFNER: But this message is not going to go through then to the millions of readers of Cosmopolitan?

BROWN: Well, basically that message is always there, that you are as, in quotes, “good as a man” in every single way, including physically. And whatever you want, go have it. We, at Cosmo, wish that you would stretch and grow and reach and go further, rather, don’t be too comfortable. That is our message. I’m not even sure that Cosmo is read by moguls and would-be Senators. I hope so. But Cosmo is perhaps more read by medium successful career women. So that’s the underlying message.

HEFFNER: Helen, you know, there is that unhappy feeling that I’m experiencing right now, that you’re talking about, again, “having it all” and this notion that, by gosh, good American notion, good wonderful American … and you may remember here on this program and elsewhere, Max Lerner talks about himself as a “possibilist,” everything is possible. But isn’t that one of the problems with where we have been in the last generation in this country, the notion that one can “have it all” and forgetting about, in the process, a lot of responsibilities and a lot of notions that perhaps one can’t have it all; therefore pick and choose carefully.

BROWN: Yes, but you can have the most of what you are able to have. You can reach further than you would have reached if you just sat around and said, “Oh, well, this is okay, I’m not going to try for anything further.” Let me say, already there is an elitism of brains, I mentioned that earlier, people with just modest intelligence … I was going to say, “Can’t be President of the United States” (laughter), but I’d better not say that. People without high intelligence probably cannot be high achievers so, you can’t tell them that they’re going to be the head of Texaco, but they can do the most within their realm of possible achievement.

HEFFNER: We have about 15 seconds. What do you think would be … what would you want to be the next real achievement of feminism? Is it political?

BROWN: I want abortion rights to be secured forever and ever. That is heinous that they should not be. And I wish for men an understanding that having an achieving wife and helping her achieve is good for them, as well as for her.

HEFFNER: And on that note, we end. Helen Gurley Brown, thank you so much for joining me today. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A. Wien; and The New York Times Company Foundation.