By Emily Toth for WOMEN = BOOKS

Posted on February 8, 2010


I still have my well-thumbed copy of Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl—but my favorite good part wasn’t about sex, exactly.

It was about nipples.

Brown’s overriding message—a scandal when she wrote it—was about free sex. Have sex with any man you want to have sex with! (Girl-on-girl wasn’t talked about then, though apparently she wanted to.) Go after married men, because they have money to take you to nice places and buy you expensive gifts!

Those parts now seem insistent, overwrought, like the drumbeat of a political campaign. Do it now! Yes, you can!

The parts I took to heart were more about drive and ambition, seizing life and being independent. Brown brags that she, a “mouseburger” from Arkansas, became a dashing woman-about-town in Los Angeles largely through determination and thrift. She ate brown-bag lunches and bought classics, not flash-in-the-pan fashions. She figured out ways to make her surroundings—and herself—look plush and expensive. She paid cash for a Mercedes, rose from secretary to advertising copy writer, and at 37 married a movie producer, her only life partner, who spent the rest of his life promoting her.

Her book is full of money-saving tips, but this was my fave:

If your breasts are small, don’t bother with a bra. Cover your nipples with Bandaids.

This was long before bralessness was a fad. It was long before women supposedly burned bras (no one ever did). It was a simple, practical suggestion that would save a woman thousands of dollars over a lifetime. (Don’t ask.)

Brown also knew about creating an image if you needed to. “D,” an angular former student of mine, once found herself on the cover of Cosmopolitan, Helen Gurley Brown’s magazine. “D” was all pushed and pulled and taped so that, she said, “For the first time in my life I had boobs.” She thought it was a hoot.

So is Helen Gurley Brown a feminist? Reviewers of the recent biography keep asking—as if we’re the mean girls deciding who can be in our clique and who can’t. I don’t think in those terms (I welcome almost anyone), but for those who do:

Well, Brown insists on women’s financial independence and career opportunities (check), supports women political candidates (check), speaks out for abortion rights (check), opposes violence against women (check), thinks women should make themselves attractive to men (probably not), thinks women should enjoy and demand good sex (probably)—so maybe she gets a B?

Well, I’d let her in my tent. I might even bring the Bandaids.


Emily Toth (rhymes with both) writes about women's lives, including biographies of Kate Chopin and Grace Metalious. She also gives advice as "Ms. Mentor" in a monthly online column for the Chronicle of Higher Education's Career Network. Her eleven books include two tomes of advice: Ms. Mentor's Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia and Ms. Mentor's New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia. She teaches at Louisiana State University and loves gossip.

Read Emily Toth’s review of Bad Girls Go Everywhere: The Life of Helen Gurley Brown in the January/February 2010 issue of WRB.


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