You Are Single Because of Helen Gurley Brownby Chiara Atik on August 14, 2012
There were married women. (Naturally.)
And there were spinsters. (Inevitably.)
But single women, who either postponed or eschewed marriage in favor of –what? Career? Travel? Adventure? Autonomy? – weren’t supposed to exist. The few that did exist certainly weren’t expected to be happy. And they were definitely not supposed to be having sex.
Helen Gurley Brown, whose death yesterday prompted a rush of Cosmo-related eulogies, single-handedly challenged long held assumptions about women with the publication of “Sex and the Single Girl,” a book whose target audience wasn’t even supposed to exist in 1962. The title was shocking, the content even more so, though the book is void of the explicit sex tips that readers have come to associate with “Cosmopolitan,” her later venture. Clever and witty, “Sex and the Single Girl” was a manual for women who needed to learn how to manage their accounts, find jobs, get apartments, and pursue active dating lives. What city bachelors had done for two hundred years, Gurley Brown gave women permission to do for themselves.
“This is not a study on how to get married, but how to stay single – in superlative style,” she writes in the first chapter of her book: a radical concept, considering that even Holly Golightly, the swinging single girl played by Audrey Hepburn in 1961′s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, wanted nothing more than to find a husband.
At the beginning of the decade, the median age for marriage for a woman was 20.5. An unmarried woman in her mid-thirties would have been, frankly, a dinosaur. But Gurley Brown, who herself married at the age of thirty seven, was a staunch advocate for holding out till you’re good and ready, even if it did mean flouting convention.
“It takes guts. It can be lonely out there out of step with the rest of folks. And you may not find somebody later. But since you’re not finding somebody sooner as things stand, wouldn’t it be better to stop driving…to stop fretting…to start recognizing what you have now?”
What single women had now, Gurley Brown outlined in her book: independence, opportunity, social lives, love affairs, and, lest we forget the title of the book, sex. Long before The Summer of Love, at a time when June Cleaver was the paradigm of American femininity, Gurley Brown announced to the world, rather matter-of-factly, that women were just as interested in sex as men were.
“Theoretically, a “nice” single woman has no sex life. What nonsense! ….while indulging her libido, which she has plenty of if she is young and healthy, it is still possible for the single woman to be a lady, to be highly respected, and even envied if she is successful in her work.”
Stating in no uncertain terms that it is healthy for a woman to have a sex drive, and that acting upon it is not deleterious to a woman’s reputation, was a giant step in a long road towards destigmatizing pre-marital sex and promoting equality between the sexes. Can you imagine what your dating life would have looked like without Helen Gurley Brown? It probably wouldn’t have lasted much farther than Sock-Hops and drive-ins.
In the fifty years since the publication of the book, the concept of the single woman has become so ingrained in our society that it’s almost taken for granted. More recent portrayals of unmarried women have almost reverted to the very stereotypes that Gurley Brown was bravely rejecting in the early 1960s. There is Bridget Jones, spending a lonely Christmas with her parents. There is Liz Lemon, eating cheese curls alone on her couch and getting made fun of by her boss for being single. And there is Carrie Bradshaw, growing increasingly disconsolate with every failed relationship and passing year.
But despite their somewhat hapless portrayals, these women have other things in common apart from their unhappy singlehoods — careers, friends, nights out, first dates, unrealistically chic apartments, sex lives, income to spend on whatever they want. Without Helen Gurley Brown, none of it would have been socially acceptable, if even possible. The concept of women striking out on their own, even for a little while, to discover who they are and what they like, to live however briefly for themselves rather than a father or a family, is a remarkably new one: fifty years verses centuries and centuries of not having the option. Anne-Marie Slaughter’s recent cover story for The Atlantic posited that women “still can’t have it all.” But it’s largely due to Gurley Brown’s influence that we even have this much.
“You’re just as good as they, that other sex, are,” she said in a 1981 TV interview.”Why not get some of the spoils and the glory and the rewards.”
Being single isn’t always easy. It certainly isn’t always as glamorous or fun as portrayed in the book. But it’s an option, it’s a choice that women today get to make for themselves after millenia of having little to no autonomy over their own lives. Single women owe a great debt to Gurley Brown’s efforts. She did the pioneering work: let’s be sure to enjoy the spoils and the glory.