The Sexual Revolution Hijacked The Women’s Movement, Former Activist Says

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Editor’s note: What follows is an excerpt from Sue Ellen Browder’s book “Subverted: How I Helped the Sexual Revolution Hijack the Women’s Movement.” It can be purchased here.

As corporate America faced intense pressures from the women’s movement and the courts to hire more women in well-paid positions, the ambitious, ever-childless Cosmo Girl was a marketer’s and CEO’s dream come true. She worked hard, bought lavishly from the pharmaceutical, medical, beauty, fashion, and travel industries, and (the triple perk) she didn’t push for all those pricey, bothersome extras like family tax breaks, maternity leave, shorter work weeks, and more flexible work arrangements.

Further, by inserting its “sex-without-children-will-set-you-free” agenda into men’s and women’s most intimate lives, the sexual revolution could sell all sorts of merchandise: the Pill and other contraceptives, lacy underwear, makeup, singles-only cruises, pornography, sexy red convertibles, STD treatments, abortions, marital counseling, divorces, and even in-vitro fertilization treatments when young women chemically neutered themselves for so long they passed their prime childbearing years and could no longer conceive naturally without help from a doctor. Splitting sex from babies spawned many lucrative new industries and would continue to do so as the decades rolled by and the sexual revolution juggernaut barreled down the tracks, crushing babies and families under its wheels and silencing anyone who dared to speak out or to stand in its path. As Cosmo’s circulation soared from fewer than eight hundred thousand to nearly three million copies, annual advertising revenues leaped between 1964 and 1985 by eighty times, from $601,000 to $47.7 million.

In 2009, long after Helen was relieved of her duties as editor-in-chief, Cosmopolitan marched on with sixty editions published in thirty-six languages, distributed in more than one hundred countries, and reaching more than one hundred million female readers. As one biographer put it, these international editions “are a long arm for Helen Gurley Brown’s continuing philosophy.” Their editors, “described by one journalist as ‘lifestyle evangelists,’ follow their mentor closely, for like ‘all good evangelists,’ their work will not be completed until the Cosmo Girl confidently struts the boardrooms
and bedrooms of the whole civilized world.”

The world is in a bad way, for the fantasy of womanhood we created at Cosmo — the fantasy of a woman as a radical individualist who belongs only to herself and is disconnected from others — betrays the truth of women’s lives.

“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be,” observed novelist Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Embracing sex without genuine love — the vision of woman as an isolated being who belongs to no one but herself — left many single young women ambivalent, confused, and in situations of regret. C—, a writer friend of mine, lived the Cosmo Girl lifestyle to the hilt, to the point that years later when dining in a crowded Greenwich Village restaurant, she would see a man across the room whose face looked vaguely familiar, and ask herself, “I wonder if I had sex with him?” As she
became increasingly caught up in a pattern of using men and being used by them merely as an object for sexual gratification, her relationships became blunted, superficial, and twisted. She became so phobic about being touched that even a girlfriend’s hug in greeting could cause her to pull back in cold fear. Imprisoned in the Cosmo Girl’s fashionable I-belong-only-to-me mindset, she found herself unspeakably lonely. After a series of empty non-relationships and several abortions, she at last found tentative interior peace in decades of celibacy. But she never married or had children and died in her sixties of breast cancer, which some medical research suggests may be linked to abortion and the Pill. Shortly before her death, in one of our many late-in-life phone conversations, C— recalled her Cosmo lifestyle years
with sad regret. She lamented, “We had sex like barnyard animals.”

For her part, Betty Friedan justifiably called Cosmo “quite obscene and quite horrible.” As the mother of the women’s movement, Betty hoped to broaden and deepen women’s lives. Cosmopolitan’s shallow sex-revolution philosophy narrowed women’s lives to what Betty called “an immature teenage-level sexual fantasy,” promoting “the idea that woman is nothing but a sex object, that [she] is nothing without a man, and there is nothing in life but bed, bed, bed.”

I agreed with Betty. Although I was willing to use Cosmo’s prestige to further my own ambitions and promote my magazine-writing career, from my vantage point, it seemed clear to me that sex outside of marriage was fraught with hazards for women. All contraceptives have rates of failure. If you happened to get pregnant by surprise (as I had with Dustin), the man who had sworn to love you ’til death do you part would very likely be there for you when you had the baby, as Walter was for me. A man who cared so little for you that he refused to make that promise would be far more likely to walk out the door. And then where would you be? A pregnant woman alone in the world with no way to get a job and no support system? Certainly not the sort of “freedom” I wanted to deal with! No thank you. Even as I manufactured copy to promote the supposedly carefree singles lifestyle, I disdained Cosmo’s sex-revolution philosophy.

Yet one cultural social force I just knew in my heart to be unquestionably true and worth my steadfast support was the women’s movement.

Sue Ellen Browder is an award-winning journalist who has appeared on “Oprah,” the “Today Show,” and hundreds of radio talk shows.