For someone with the surname Gurley, this lady is 100% grown woman. Our first still-alive badass, Gurley Brown is sort of a contentious figure. She’s somewhat of a divisive character amongst second and third-wave feminists, but for better or for worse, everyone can agree that she is a big deal.
Born February 18, 1922, Helen Gurley’s smalltown childhood was marked with tragedy—when she was ten, her father Ira died in an elevator accident… an elevator accident, guys. That’s the worst. But her mother and sisters stuck together and moved to California, powering through until Gurley graduated from Woodbury Business College in 1941.
A woman in a male-dominated field, Gurley went full Mad Men on Los Angeles, working for a variety of creative agencies as a secretary. Finally, Peggy Olson-style, she was discovered by an associate at Foote, Cone & Belding, and promoted to copywriter. It’s hard not to think Matthew Weiner’s character owes a pretty huge debt to Gurley: the secretary-turned-copywriter straight up TOOK OVER FCB and by the end of the 1960s she was one of the highest paid advertizing writers in the US.
Around the end of the 60s she also met and married her husband, Hollywood producer David Brown, to whom she was happily married for over 50 years. You’ll note Ms. Gurley was in her late 30s when she got married—that would probably be considered “late” to get married nowadays, but in the 50s it made her more or less officially an old maid, which obviously is insane. She agreed. Thus her 1962 bestseller Sex and the Single Girl, an advice book that diverged from the dicta of the day by suggesting that women get financially and sexually independent, taking care of their wallets and sex lives how they wanted.
The ladies of the sexual revolution were all “preaaaach!” and the book sold 2 million copies in three weeks. Sure, nowadays the book is a bit dated, with tips for having a “Sexy Kitchen” (???) and do-it-yourself facial hair bleach advice, but the premise is sound—a lady needs to be able to take care of herself alone so that she can be on an equal footing in a relationship. Pretty forward-thinking stuff for the early 60s, although as we all know things got pretty sessy and cray by the end of that decade.
In 1965 Gurley became the ed-in-chief of Cosmopolitan, turning things around for the struggling women’s mag. She remains the international editor for 59 different editions of Cosmo. She and her husband established the “David and Helen Gurley Brown Institute for Media Innovation” with a $30 million donation (!!!!) to Columbia and Stanford.
While a lot of feminists have problems with the “you can have it all, ladies” approach that Gurley Brown applied to her writing, life and magazine legacy, you gotta admit, she kind of did.