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The liberating editor

IN 1991, in the wake of the Clarence Thomas hearings, Helen Gurley Brown, nearing the end of her 32-year tenure as the editor of Cosmopolitan, was asked whether any of the women on her staff had ever been sexually harassed, a question to which she jovially replied: "I certainly hope so."

Attempting to rescind her remarks in The Wall Street Journal, Brown claimed she had merely been facetious, offering that the sexes were in fine rapport and that she didn't want to "stress negatives."

By the time she left the magazine, six years later, Brown had created a landmark institution committed to the view that there were few negatives in a woman's life that could not be reversed with an optimistic spirit and a pair of leopard-print panties.

Weighing Brown's benighted ideas against the sum of her contributions to the cause of female sexual freedom, Jennifer Scanlon argues unambivalently - in "Bad Girls Go Everywhere: The Life of Helen Gurley Brown" - for her inclusion in the pantheon of remarkable mid-20th century feminists. At this stage, it is a position that feels both more intuitive than acknowledged by Scanlon, a women's studies professor at Bowdoin College, and less persuasive than she would have it.

Beginning in the early 1960s, Brown, who married at 37 and remained childless, advocated for the primacy of work in women's lives, rejecting essentialist ideas about motherhood and believing women ought to delay marriage, or forgo it entirely, largely on the grounds that it made life less fun.

Scanlon's chief lament is that her subject's progressive thought has gone entirely unrecognized. Brown appears to have won, though, even without having been honored with a postage stamp during Women's History Month.

Her best-selling advice guide "Sex and the Single Girl" was reissued with a cover line that celebrates her legacy: "Before there was 'Sex and the City,' there was 'Sex and the Single Girl."


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