THE DEATH of Helen Gurley Brown is prompting many to hail her as one of the high-ranking officials of the sexual revolution, who, as far back as 1962, encouraged women to be sexy, smart and successful. Brown was quoted as saying that her goal in editing
magazine, which she did for more than 30 years, was to show women "how to get everything out of life - money, recognition, success, men, prestige, authority, dignity - whatever she is looking at through the glass her nose is pressed against."
However empowering that may sound, Brown's philosophy - make money and be successful, but never be un-cute or unsexy doing it - was conflicted and contradictory enough that it appealed to women - and plenty of men. She'd never be mistaken for a feminist, even before she claimed that she treated her husband as a geisha would. She may have considered herself a champion of female power, but the currency of that power was cleavage and legs, and women paid it by being complicit in their own objectification.
Having lived for 90 years, Brown saw the beginnings of the sexual revolution and the subsequent revolutions in the workplace and in society. Her passing gives us a chance to assess how far we've come - or haven't - in the past century.
Ninety years later, we'd rather have fewer Kim Kardashians and more women in Congress; only 20 percent of the current Congress is female, and the number of female lawmakers at the state level is even worse.
We'd like to see fewer teens getting breast-augmentation surgery and more women making the same amount of money than men for the same work, instead of 80 cents for every dollar a man makes. We'd rather see fewer women boinking the likes of Eliot Spitzer and getting tweets from Anthony Weiner, and more than the current 20 female CEOs in the Fortune 500 list. More female leadership might lead to fewer of the kind of sexual-harassment claims that have made headlines in the city for the past few years, not only at Philadelphia Housing Authority but at the Police Department.
In other words, we have to wonder just how far women's progress has "evolved" in the last 40-odd years. Another few cases in point: In 1960, the FDA approved the birth-control pill, which many directly link to the sweeping sexual revolution. In 2012, contraception has become a battleground, as a stipulation in Obamacare that would provide birth control is causing religious leaders to balk and decry women's access to birth control. And many states are trying or succeeding at defunding Planned Parenthood, which would compromise health care for millions of women. And in 1972, the Supreme Court upheld the right of a woman to have an abortion; this, too, has come under strong attack in many states, including Pennsylvania, where a bill would have required women to get an ultrasound before terminating a pregnancy.