How Helen Gurley Brown Became a “Militant Feminist” at Age 65

by Debbie Stoller

Once upon a time, Helen Gurley Brown called herself a “non-militant feminist.” She called herself that,  she says, because, at the time,  she 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…that I just wanted to sort of indicate, I guess, that I wasn’t mad at men.” The truth is, barely anyone else considered Gurley Brown to be much of a feminist at all, especially the leaders of the women’s movement.

But Gurley Brown always thought of herself as a feminist, she says. She even thought of herself as a “devout feminist.” But a militant feminist “was very staunchly, loudly vociferously feminist and making a big to-do and a racket about it all.”

But then things changed. In an eye-opening interview in 1988, she explained, “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.”

So what brought about the change? “It happened, I think, about 11 months ago when I became 65…” she explained. “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. [But when]  that birthday hit last year … 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.”

She also admitted that she read up thoroughly on the feminist movement while preparing for a speech she was asked to give in Houston. “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.” After really reading up on feminism, Gurley admitted, “I know so much more about the whole scene. No wonder Letty Pogrebin and Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem get piqued with me sometimes –there’s so much I just haven’t known.

And yet, when we think of Gurley Brown in all her pink, leopard-print glory, and  all of the Cosmo headlines that focus on its female readers sex lives, it’s so easy to overlook what it is she did, and how revolutionary — and feminist — it was. Because in the era Gurley Brown was raised, women were expected to be absolutely innocent about sex. They weren’t supposed to know about it, they weren’t supposed to enjoy it. They were, as the cliche had it, supposed to just “lie back and think of England.” In fact, most women only had sex with the men they married, and had no experiences to compare to – no way to know that some things might be done differently, or better. Gurley Brown was on a mission to try and change all of that. Women shouldn’t be so innocent; women should demand sexual satisfaction; women should sleep around a bit before they get married, fer chrissakes!

There was no place for most of that in the feminist movement of the time. The truth is, feminists of the early 70s had a sex problem; they weren’t quite sure how to address it,they didn’t know what to do with it, and they worried that focusing on it too much might derail the entire movement. In fact, Betty Friedan demanded that the issues of sex and sexuality were taken off the table when forming NOW and determining its platform.

So there was Gurley Brown, America’s first “pro-sex” feminist, causing trouble, raising some feminist’s hackles. Weren’t women trying to get away from all that pink shit? From all the high heels and short skirts? From all the sexual objectification?

Maybe. But Gurley Brown was driven to make sure that women had the right to be sexually self-actualized, whatever that took. And if some folks took offense, well F to them. Women’s sexual pleasure was more important. Women’s sexual pleasure was the most important. She just couldn’t, at the time, see that being sexy to men wasn’t necessarily the only path to sexual satisfaction. It was only once her own expiration date had passed, that she finally realized the other feminists actually had a point. RIP Helen Gurley Brown. You always were a militant feminist. You were.

Watch Having It All? on PBS. See more from The Open Mind.

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