Brown and Gray: Women of Our Times
On the face of things, you can’t think of two persons who are more different in their outlook on life, in the impact of their lives, than Helen Gurley Brown and Nellie Gray. Love them or not, agree or disagree, approve or disapprove, both women had a huge impact on their times, and how women thought of such matters as sex, success, family, conception, and abortion and life itself.
Both women died this past week—Gray, the founder of the uncompromisingly anti-abortion, pro-life movement at age 88, Brown, the author of “Sex and the Single Girl” and the editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, at 90. It’s hard to imagine them in the same room, or at the same gathering together, and yet, their shadows, if not their own lives, mingled and touched at certain nexuses of American life, especially for women.
In terms of seriousness and immediate and ongoing historical significance, it’s fair to say that Gray’s legacy is profoundly important, whatever side of the abortion issue you stand on. In 1973, Gray, a devout Catholic with a good government job, responded to the news of the Supreme Court’s Rowe vs. Wade decision by spearheading a March for Life in protest the following year, and the march, complete with arrays of white crosses to signify unborn babies, the marchers wearing red roses, continues to this day. The attendance of those marches, often met with pro-choice counter-demonstrators, have varied but have been counted to be as high as 70,000. It’s also fair to say that the marches and the pro-life movement in general have influenced the national consciousness and been a major part of the pro-life and anti-abortion movement, which has steadfastly opposed and fought—often with violence on its fringes—abortion and abortion rights for women. In today’s culture, Rowe v. Wade remains under attack with the ascendancy of the conservative and so-called social issues of the Christian right.
You suspect sometimes that the anti-abortion activists in choosing to call the march a “March for Life,” projected a positive image, and managing to stick a “pro-abortion” tag on the choice side, when in fact, the issue is one of choice and civil rights, per the court’s decision. It’s doubtful there’s a soul to be found that celebrates the procedure of abortion.
There’s no question, however, about Gray’s sincerity or her principles—she saw abortion as the killing of an innocent human being, as she put it—and that was that, leaving no room for exceptions let alone nuance, or bothering with the consequences of such a stand, which were often violent.
Brown’s legacy isn’t so obvious, if you discount the pages and content and cover of Cosmopolitan, which are all about thin, fashion, sex, keeping fit and young, and being free to make choices, which includes sex without marriage. Brown, who came from a tough, hard-scrabble upbringing in Arkansas, came to be a quintessential kind of New York chic urban woman, and with her book, “Sex and the Single Girl,” which basically suggested that sex and sexuality might be part of a purse package for success, along with brains, ambition and drive, and the right hair and makeup.
Her book—like Betty Friedan's “The Feminine Mystique”—influenced a whole generation of young women, although in a somewhat different way. And those women came to take sides in the battle over abortion rights, and many chose against the Life forces as espoused by Gray. Free-wheeling sexuality, along with the pill, revolutionized American culture, and it, too, had its consequences, which converged on the battleground over abortion.
It is easy to be a little snide about Brown and Cosmo, and it is easier still to put her more in with her male counterpart, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, who proposed that men could have their cake and read his magazine as well as the centerfold. The Cosmo girl, in a way, could become the mates and partners in the same dance where you could find playboys who read Playboy.
Both Brown and Gray are connected, like two activists pulling on the same rope from opposite ends. Both have living legacies: Cosmo, which Brown had long ago stopped editing, remains on newsstands and much the same, and the battle over abortion still rages, having outlived the founder of the March For Life.