Helen Gurley Brown

The Modern Woman

VTR Date: March 11, 1981

Helen Gurley Brown discusses the modern woman and women's magazines.


GUEST: Helen Gurley Brown
VTR: 3/11/81

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And I’m a pretty good listener. Some people might comment, of course, that that’s because I don’t have that much to say. Whatever. I’ve now met an even better listener, a superbly evocative person who draws you out of your innermost thoughts; and, in turn, those thoughts out of you. Despite the fact that she, indeed, does have so much to say and to write about, both as the author, 20 years ago, of the then sensational “Sex and the Single Girl”, and as the editor for many years now, of the extraordinarily successful monthly magazine, Cosmopolitan. My guest is Helen Gurley Brown.

Helen, I don’t know much, admittedly, about women’s magazines, and I’m not good at the entertainment and humor of “Tonight” and “Tomorrow” and all those other popular programs that have such large audiences and that you’ve graced so often with such style. But I am interested in why we think the way we do. And I’m not unaware of the seed changes that have taken place in this country over the past generation and more, let’s say, since THE OPEN MIND first went on the air. Changes in the way we think about men and women, and about sex and the single girl, the married woman, the man, the boy, and so forth. What role, do you think, that popular magazines such as your own have played in bringing about these changes over this past generation?

GURLEY BROWN: I can’t speak for other magazines, Richard. I can speak for Cosmopolitan, and suggest that we haven’t brought about very many changes at all. When I wrote “Sex and the Single Girl”, I was just reporting about what was already going on and sort of chronicling a condition in this country which was that single women were A-okay and having a great time of it and a good sex life and they were solid citizens and nobody had ever said that before, so I wrote about that. But I didn’t cause it to happen. In terms of magazines, I do believe that most women’s magazines sort of stayed with the times, not necessarily ahead of the times, with the exception of Ms. Magazine, which indeed is a spokesmagazine for a movement, for a revolutionary movement. We might say they are, perhaps, still ahead of their time; the rest of us, I think, are there. Maybe Cosmo’s a little bit more there than some traditional women’s magazines, but they’re catching up very fast in terms of what they report. You can find the word “orgasm” mentioned 15 times in Glamour, Mademoiselle, Self. So, we talk about what is; we don’t cause it to be.

HEFFNER: Why do you say that? I mean, you say that with such certainty. Do you not want the responsibility for participating in, as a causal agent, in this whole revolution of the past generation?

GURLEY BROWN: Well, that’s rather a good question, because I have been pummeled and pounded upon so much by television audiences, call-in people in radio shows who seem to think that I’ve perpetrated anything naughty and rotten and immoral that’s ever gone on in the history of the world between men and women. And I always do defend myself and say, “I didn’t do it. I didn’t do it. I t was happening. I’m just talking about it”. So I’m a little defensive.

HEFFNER: You say you’re a little defensive, and a moment ago you said, “defend yourself”. Why defend yourself? Why defend? Why not proclaim it to the stars, to the heavens, the role that perhaps – and there has to be something more than just a reflective mechanism that the book, “Sex and the Single Girl”, and the magazine have played.

GURLEY BROWN: The thing that I’m proudest of, and perhaps a bit ahead of the pack, even ahead of the women’s movement, is the idea that women are very smart, and very able, and there’s no reason to keep all that ability and that smartness underground, buried. It should, and has been brought up to the surface and it’s now channeled into so many different wonderful fields for women to participate in. So maybe I’m one of the first people who said, “For Heaven’s sake, don’t live through your man. Don’t live through your children. Do it yourself. You’re just as good as they – that other sex – are. And why don’t you get some of the spoils and the glory and the rewards?” And I do hit that theme very hard. So if I’m revolutionary in any respect, it’s the idea that women can be full-fledged citizens professionally. They can, we can compete with any man in any field that ever was invented, except possibly in sports where we’re not quite as strong physically, as able, but we’re getting there. Do you fell this sentence is about to go on forever?

HEFFNER: No, no.

GURLEY BROWN: I just want to say that, sexually, I’m not the one to say, “Go out and do more than you’re doing and have more lovers than you now have, and if you have a dull husband, get rid of him and get another one, or get two more, or keep him and have a lover”. That really is not my role in life, if I have a role in life. My role in life, as I see it, is to encourage women to use up their full potential, because it’s so wonderful, it’s so exciting to do it yourself instead of to have to listen to them ask you about your husband’s contract, or “Did he sign up for this?” or “How are things at the university?” or “Did he get the promotion?” Phooey to that! Let them ask you about your contract and have you signed up and did you get the promotion. So I know that that’s blessed and wonderful. In terms of sexuality, that’s such a personal matter. I really am for anybody doing what he or she wants. But if you’re doing it and people are criticizing you for it, then I will defend your right to do it and say, “Tell them to bug off”.

HEFFNER: You didn’t write a book called “Listening to the Husband”, or “Having Him Listen to Yourself, and the Single Woman” not to a husband/boyfriend, or “How to Get Your Husband to Do This or That”; you wrote about “Sex and the Single Girl”. So is it such a surprise, Helen, that today you tend to defend yourself against what you seem to feel is the charge that you are a one-woman revolutionary in this area?

GURLEY BROWN: At the time that I wrote these incendiary words, having to do with the idea that you were not a disgrace and you were not a pariah if you were having a sexual relationship with a man to whom you were not married, at the time I said that that was a little revolutionary. But I repeat, it was going on all over the place. It’s been going on forever. Women in the 30s and the 40s and the 50s who were not married were, indeed, very sexual creatures. They were having a great sex life. It’s just that nobody could come right out and admit that she was having it. So I guess I simply said, “Don’t be ashamed of anything”. But I did not say, “Go do it if you’re not already doing it”. That’s up to you to decide.

HEFFNER: Okay. We’ll take you off the hook on that. Let’s go back, though, on the question of the power of a magazine or the power of a book. Who questioned whether, indeed, it is possible? Your book, many other books in our times…I remember when I was in college reading in a book called “Books That Changed Our Minds” – an extraordinary volume – about different kinds of books and the impact that they have had upon us. Do you think that t books and magazines do not revolutionize?

GURLEY BROWN: Books and magazines are two different things. And I believe books are the most important mind-changers of our time. Much more so than television commentators, or even newspapers.

HEFFNER: Not magazines?

GURLEY BROWN: Well, magazines are a little less in the forefront. For example, books like “Mein Kampf” or “The Silent Spring” or – what was the Ralph Nader book? – “Cheap at Any Price” or “the Communist Manifesto”, those were all books. And they are big influences. But magazines, I don’t find quite that – I won‘t say important – Women’s magazines reassure, and they tell you how to do it yourself, and they tell you how to get what you want out of life. But they are not, with the exception of, once in a while, an article in The Atlantic Monthly, once in a while an article in The Reader’s Digest. The Reader’s Digest has been very courageous in terms of condemning smoking and, in the 30s they talked about reckless driving. They are very down on alcohol. And they have been courageous, and I believe they have changed some lives.

HEFFNER: I was thinking of the legitimating role. The repetition, week after week, or in the case of Cosmopolitan, month after month, of a certain approach to women, and whether you haven’t, over the past generation, served to legitimate a point of view. Maybe not initiate it. Maybe you’re correct; you were reporting initially. But you do tend to legitimate. You do tend, through repetition.

GURLEY BROWN: That’s a good word. But that point that I’m making legitimate is such an honorable one, the one I talked about earlier, the idea of you’ve got just yourself to work with; you don’t have to work with anybody else to improve the world. Just work with what is here. And it’s such an honorable, legitimate idea. And I do hit that very heavily. Maybe I’m a bit of an evangelist in those terms.

HEFFNER: Now we’re getting down to the power…

GURLEY BROWN: What I do in life?

HEFFNER: What you do in life. You use the word; are you not “evangelical”? You say, “Maybe just a bit”.

GURLEY BROWN: In terms of work, in terms of health, in terms of friendships, in terms of getting through the night (as Frank Sinatra describes it), perhaps a bit of an evangelist. But these are big words to toss around. I just think of, David Brown, my husband, really thinks I’m ridiculous in terms of saying, “Well, it’s must me. I’m just, you know, I’m just a little person doing the best I can in life”. He says, “You know, that’s very unbecoming at this stage of my life”. Indeed, maybe I have influenced some people. But, if I have, suggesting that they enjoy themselves sexually without guilt is only about 26 percent, perhaps, of my message. My big message is, “Get on with it”. You may be a mouseburger – which is what I consider myself to have been; no education, not particularly attractive, no family background, no money, no credentials of any kind – but I came from there to here. And you, my dear, can do the same thing. Perhaps, I sometimes say, I’m the poor girl’s Evita Peron, because I say, “If I can, you can”. So in that way I might be evangelical. When I say, “You can”, what am I talking about, I’m saying, “You can do better in your job. You can get a career out of a secretarial job. You can work with yourself”. I’m so healthy, I’m ridiculous. You know, if it were left up to me I would clean out all the hospitals. All you have to do is do what I do: You don’t smoke, you don’t drink, you don’t eat sugar, you don’t have salt, you don’t stay up late, you exercise an hour a day, you eat lots of protein, fresh vegetables, you love your work. I mean, there’s no reason to be sick if all those things are going on in your life. So that I’m evangelical about.

HEFFNER: What a tremendous “if”. If all those things are going on in your life. But, of course, you talk about things that you have control over. You don’t need to smoke, you don‘t need to drink, you don‘t need to do this, that or the other thing.

GURLEY BROWN: That is the whole idea, isn’t it? You can have control over so few things. You cannot even, certainly, especially, you can’t control a child. And if there’s anything you also definitely can’t control it’s a husband. You cannot control anybody who works for you, really. You try that. It’s out the door and you’ll have to get another one, because they won’t be here very long. You can have some control over your own life, certainly over your own body. I mean, that’s a simple little thing to go to work on. And this is my message, truly. If there ain’t nothing else out there that you can do about anything, if you’re completely stymied, if nobody understands you, if your job is a mess, if your lived ones are mean to you, if you’re unprepossessing, at least you’ve got your own person to work on. And I won’t even try mind control. I’m no very big on thinking thoughts that get you further along. But I do know that exercise is wonderful. And it does make you feel better. And if you do a lot of it, you can rout depression, and you’ll be healthier.

HEFFNER: Robert Hutchins, the late Robert Hutchins, used to say, when he thought about exercise he would go and lie down for a while until the thought passed over. That’s what I’m going to do with that matter. Let me ask you another question, Helen. You’ve been involved with, in one way or another, the feminist movement in this past generation. I don’t know what you want to claim your involvement is, or say your involvement is. What do you think is happening to that movement now in this country?

GURLEY BROWN: It’s quieted down, but there’s dedicated women – Marlo Thomas, Gloria Steinem, Pat Carbine, others who work for Ms. Magazine and for other causes related to the movement – they are as strong as ever. Those women are so admirable. They don’t have all the support they should have from, of all people, American women. American business has been quite cooperative in many ways, maybe because they had to be. They have put women on boards of directors. Women can get into the executive ranks now. Women, themselves, perhaps, have not cooperated on their own behalf as much as they should. The movement is alive and very, very well indeed. But it has not gained momentum in certain areas as much as it should have.

HEFFNER: But, Helen, how can you say they haven’t cooperated on their own behalf? They don’t perceive their behalf as involved with the feminist movement. That’s what you’re saying.

GURLEY BROWN: It’s true. Many women say, “I believe in equal salaries for the same work by men and women, but I’m not one of those women”. They repudiate the women’s movement, which is so ridiculous. It’s there to help everybody. It’s not there to intimidate or hurt anyone.

HEFFNER: You say it’s there to help everyone. But you also seem to be saying that it doesn’t have the support of most women.

GURLEY BROWN: That may be.

HEFFNER: Which hardly makes it a women’s movement.

GURLEY BROWN: Let me put it another way. I don’t believe there is a family in this country that has not been affected by the women’s movement. It may be that the woman is doing exactly what she always did, but she’s aware of the fact that there are others out there who do not think that washday can be a symphony, that there are other things in life. She still may be doing what she always did, but she knows that her role is not the totally accepted one that it used to be. In the most male chauvinist household, I don’t think there’s a male chauvinist who is not aware that out there there are people who do not agree with him and who think that he’s a jerk. So even though they haven’t changed their roles, they are aware that there is such a movement.

HEFFNER: I’m really not talking about awareness. I’m talking about approval, disapproval. I’m talking about embracing the ideas of the feminist ideas you mentioned. And I would gather, and I think you’re perhaps saying the same thing, that there is perhaps a smaller percentage of American women today who do embrace the movement, permitted the movement – and it doesn’t have that much to do with them – the majority of women. Where is it going?

GURLEY BROWN: Now, where is it going next?

HEFFNER: Yeah. And I don‘t mean those women you’ve mentioned. I mean the attitude of most women towards the questions that you’ve raised.

GURLEY BROWN: Well, where it’s going now, where it’s already going, is that most women who marry in their teens and twenties now intend to do something outside the home. They are doing it. They may take time off to have children, but they do want equal professional stature in the world. I keep using that word “professional”. Not everybody is in a profession. But women care about their work, and they are not dropping out to be homemakers and never returning to the work world again. That is very much here and now and is happening. In addition to that, women in their forties and fifties who did drop out are now trying to get back in and perhaps that is the biggest challenge. It’s because working and making money and being respected for your work rather than just respected for your body because you begat a child is a very wonderful thing. So a lot of women want to be in on that. And after their children leave home, they would like to get back into the work world. That’s part of the women’s movement. That’s a big part of it. And it’s a big challenge, because if you haven’t done anything for 20 years, nobody will let you back in to do anything, except maybe be a receptionist.

HEFFNER: A young lawyer I know, a man, was saying to me the other day, was talking about his consciousness raising group. And I became aware, in talking with him, that there would seem to be now a larger and larger number of young men who are experiencing what young women experienced over the past decade or so: consciousness raising.

GURLEY BROWN: But that’s absolutely fabulous that men should be experiencing that. I don’t think there are so many consciousness raising groups for women now because we’ve been there. We’ve already had our consciousnesses raised. But men still have a long way to go. Listen, there are side effects for every drug, or every movement. And the women’s movement, in my opinion, is a blessed movement, a successful movement. It has a long way to go. The side effects are…Well, you haven’t even asked me about this, so why should I…

HEFFNER: I was just going to say, “What’s the down side”?

GURLEY BROWN: …why should I volunteer? The down side is that many women who should be traditional homemakers are thinking that they did something wrong or that they are not as good as other people because they do not also have a career. So I’m here pushing work because that’s been my way. But I didn’t have children, so it was easy for me to continue in the work world. So the down side is that many women who are fabulous mothers, great homemakers, who shouldn’t, perhaps, be required or requested to do anything else in life, are now being made to feel as though they are the second-class citizen. Also – and I know Barbara Walters holds this point of view also – maybe you can’t run General Motors and have three darling children and have a husband who adores you, for whom you carry on like a geisha girl each night, and have a country home and a city home and entertain like Jane Hoving. Maybe you can’t do all that. Maybe women have been taught that they can do everything. Gloria Steinem doesn’t have children either. Marlo Thomas doesn’t have children yet. To be a real feminist, maybe you can’t do everything else at the same time. So we have, perhaps, encouraged women to think that we can all do everything, which is not quite the case.

HEFFNER: Helen, you say, “maybe”. Does that mean because you think “no”?

GURLEY BROWN: To do everything that a woman is now doing, she has to work very hard and be very energized and probably a very special kind of woman. Not everybody can be Barbara Walters with a child and a fantastic career, and she entertains beautifully, and she loves her family and takes care of them. It takes a lot of energy to be Barbara Walters or Mary Welles Lawrence, or Geraldine Stutz at Henry Bender, or any other lady tycoon. Men, your sex, has not cooperated in taking over any of the housework that I can observe. That didn’t take. We hoped it would. So you‘re not helping us. Therefore, we’ve got to do everything we ever did, and do anything we want also to do. So we’ve got to be really superwomen. Maybe, with young people your children’s age, who are getting married, maybe those women will be able to train their husbands to open a box of Post Toasties without spilling everything over the sink, or fry an egg. But women of my generation cannot now train their husbands to do any of those things. So we’re still doing it all. And you’ve got to be a supercharged person to do that.

HEFFNER: Do you think it will happen that my sons, who are male chauvinists, will come to do that? Is that really your prophecy? That young people will, young men will – in the ten seconds we have…

GURLEY BROWN: More so. More so than they are now. Yes. They’re going to learn how to be equal partners and do the grubby stuff along with the good stuff.

HEFFNER: Because of the pressure of the women’s movement?

GURLEY BROWN: I believe so.

HEFFNER: Thanks very much for joining me today, Helen Gurley Brown. I think we ought, someday, to go back to some of these questions about the impact of books and magazines; your book, your magazine. Thanks again.

And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.