Subverted is another book I’ve read recently that has made a deep impression on me. The subtitle of this book is “How I Helped the Sexual Revolution Hijack the Women’s Movement.” How’s that for provocative? The author, Sue Ellen Browder, earned her degree from the prestigious University of Missouri School of Journalism in 1969. This book is a combination of investigative journalism and memoir. She lived through the women’s movement, and she believes that in her career as a magazine writer she helped create propaganda that derailed it. For this book she thoroughly researched historical records, such as the minutes of early meetings of the National Organization for Women, to understand how the women’s movement turned away from a focus on educational and economic opportunities and toward a focus on contraception and abortion.
Browder knows from personal experience how much women needed a movement to demand equal rights with men. She married her husband, Walter, while they were both still in college, and she was fired from her first job when she became pregnant. Not long after that, she lost out on a job at Baby Talk magazine (of all places!) because she mentioned in the interview that she had a baby at home.
Ultimately, she landed a job at Cosmopolitan and felt her dream of writing for a significant magazine had come true. She soon learned that she was expected to write stories that promoted the editor’s philosophy and imitated her writing style. Helen Gurley Brown, the editor of Cosmo, had published her book, Sex and the Single Girl, one year before Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique. Browder sums up the difference between them: “Whereas Betty Friedan’s message to women was ‘Creative work of your own will set you free,’ Helen Gurley Brown’s message to the single woman was ‘Hard work and sex will set you free (as long as you don’t have children).'”
Brown had a vision in her mind of a sexually free single woman with a successful career, and she used her magazine to sell that image to her audience. Browder explains that Brown “had even written a set of guidelines suggesting it was fine for us to make up ‘experts’ to quote and to invent anecdotes about ordinary single women.” After about ten years, she says, it was no longer necessary to invent the anecdotes because so many women had started living the “Cosmo lifestyle.” The propaganda had been successful.
It is interesting to note that while writing articles like “When He Doesn’t Want Sex,” “What to Do about Those Ubiquitous Vaginal Infections,” and “Just How Neurotic Are You?”, Browder was blissfully married to her beloved Walter and delighting in her young children. That’s not to say that her personal life was easy. She and Walter, who dreamed of being a novelist, often struggled to make ends meet, and they did face tragedy together, but they loved each other, and they loved their family life.
This book opened my eyes to the struggles of women today. Why is it still so hard for women to have children and a career? Why do women still earn less than men? Why don’t we have paid maternity leave? Why is it often hard to find quality, affordable childcare? Browder makes it clear that all of the passion of the women’s movement turned toward a focus on avoiding motherhood instead of making it easier to raise a family and pursue a career. Browder’s book contains a heaping platter of food for thought, and I recommend it to everyone: women and men, liberals and conservatives, agnostics and people of faith. No matter who you are or what you believe about women’s rights and the sexual revolution, Browder has worked hard to provide accurate historical research and to open up her wounded soul in an effort to bring us all together to see how we can truly improve the lives of women.
Here’s a link if you’re interested in reading more.