Author Helen Gurley Brown is likely unfamiliar to most women in their early 20s today, but when I was that age, everyone was talking about her. The book she wrote, Sex and the Single Girl, which came out in 1962, set us all agog — particularly young women like my girlfriends and me.
We’d all moved to the big city to work after being reared in small Midwestern farming communities. The book’s subject matter was circumvented in polite conversation — or not discussed at all — in our nice little Lutheran towns.
It was all the hush-hush secret stuff that we “good girls,” who were expected to marry young, weren’t supposed to know about — the sort of thing my mother would lapse into Norwegian to discuss with her sisters.
And here was a woman who’d come right out with it in a book. We couldn’t wait to read it!
Too many years have passed for me to recall what Sex and the Single Girl had to offer us. When I spied a copy recently at a garage sale, I grabbed it up, and read it again.
Well, then. There, now. Helen Gurley Brown seemed to touch on just about everything we innocents were curious about — and quite a few things we’d never imagined. I mean, who in our group knew that “one girl alone on a beach” could be “a man attractor,” a tip that appears in the chapter titled “Where to meet them.” Or if you go looking for a man at an Alchoholics Anonymous meeting, you should “pick a wealthier chapter of A.A.”
These “tips” set the tone of the book. Subsequent chapters followed suit, offering encouragement and suggestions — an action plan, if you will — on how to ensnare a man. A rich one if possible. Or, perhaps . . . several men. She detailed how to decorate your apartment, what clothing to wear and makeup tricks to enhance an ordinary face. She even provided recipes for a special romantic dinner.
Reading all of this today reminds me of just how eager women were and — if they followed the book’s suggestions — what lengths they might go just to find a man. But the book’s idea was radical in 1962. Our 1950s values hadn’t vanished; we still had marriage in mind. There hadn’t been any real encouragement — media or otherwise — to remain single and follow a career as the book suggests doing, and as Brown did, becoming editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine.
Then, in 1970, came The Mary Tyler Moore Show on TV. Now here was “Mary Richards,” an attractive, bright woman who seemed to be everything a man would want, but who was in no hurry at all to snag the right one.
She carved out an interesting career as an associate TV producer and a successful life as a single woman. It was food for thought.
At this point, I could say, the rest is history. But instead, I’ll give a pat on the back to Helen Gurley Brown. It was time for women to redefine their roles in life. She gave us a boost in that direction — as well as a really good recipe for Pepper Steak Espana!
Carol Hall lives in Woodbury. She’s a longtime freelance writer, a University of Minnesota graduate and a former Northwest Airlines stewardess.
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