Books we keep, books we toss: Helen Gurley Brown’s is a keeper

Unlike most book lovers I know, I have culled my bookshelves mercilessly over the years.  I always think that someone else could be enjoying those books that just sit there on the shelves for so long, so I donate them to used book stores, libraries and anywhere else that might appreciate those books.  I hope that my own books have found new audiences in these ways.  But when I look at my shelves and see those books that I’ve actually kept for the long haul, one jumped off the shelf at me this morning.

It is a pocket-book version of Helen Gurley Brown’s 1982 classic Having it All.  You can have her Sex and the Single Girl, but I’ll take Having it All.  Of course it jumped out because the venerable Ms. Brown died yesterday at 90.

I graduated from Cosmo to Vogue and now More (for women over 40) many years ago, but I always appreciated Helen Gurley Brown’s fundamental feminist advice – despite the fact that Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan (among many others) thought of her brand of feminism more as the “lipstick” type than the ‘real’  type as Simon Houpt wrote this morning in the Globe & Mail.  Give it a rest, all you militant feminists; Helen had a thing or two to say about female empowerment and equality, even if it was framed by thoughts of sex and beautiful clothes.

As the editor of a widely –circulated and wildly successful young women’s magazine, Ms. Brown was a powerful woman if ever there was one, and I can’t help but wonder the extent to which all those things that influence us in our younger years are there in our older minds when we contemplate our writing.  My main characters in my novels all do seem to emerge as women ahead of their time, with interests in pursuing lives that were not supposed to be women’s territory.  And these are women who make their mark.

Earlier this summer Anne-Marie Slaughter stirred up the “having it all” squabble in a big way with her (extremely wordy) piece in The Atlantic.  In “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” she wrote, “I still strongly believe that women can ‘have it all’ (and that men can too)…But not today…” as a consequence of the way “…America’s economy and society are currently structured…”[1]

Ms. Brown, back in 1982, with her brand of lipstick feminism, suggested that “having it all” meant the following:

  • “To love and be loved by a desirable man or men;
  • To enjoy sex;
  • To be happy in your work – and maybe even famous;
  • To make money — possibly a lot;
  • To look great;
  • To have wonderful, loyal friends;
  • To help your family;
  • To be free from most anxiety;
  • Never to be bored
  • Maybe leave the world a better place”[2]

I don’t know about you, it may be a bit simplistic, but this is as good a description of women having it all as I have ever seen (of course having or not having children was not part of Helen’s equation). Hmm…it also seems like the formula for her Cosmo magazine, Oprah’s everything, and chick lit.  Maybe that’s one of my influences.  Now back to my “women’s novel” manuscript and a few new ideas that spring to mind this morning.

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