What a difference a century makes

The recent death of Helen Gurley Brown, the longtime editor of Cosmopolitan magazine calls to mind the scope and influence of earlier women editors in America. The appointment of Brown as editor of a traditional women’s magazine in 1962 shook the publishing world. Her emphasis on the acceptance of the right of single women to have sex was a bombshell in many conventional suburban communities. I remember as a young mother living in a sprawling housing development in New Jersey the startled reaction of some of my neighbors. One morning I saw a woman down my street sitting on her steps crying because she worried about her husband being seduced by secretaries made daring by Cosmopolitan. Within a few years the domestic life of many women was being reshaped by the bold ideas implanted by Helen Gurley Brown and her magazine.

Portrait of Sarah Hale

Long before Brown, however, women editors had shaped the lives and expectations of American women. Sarah J. Hale, who for forty years ruled over Godey’s Lady’s Book, one of the country’s most influential magazines, had a different agenda for her journal. Instead of seeing sexual freedom as the most important empowerment tool for women, Hale crusaded for education. Offering young women an education similar to their brothers was a radical idea. She strongly supported economic independence for woman and wanted them to become teachers and doctors to serve both the community and their families. Unlike Brown, Hale never saw the role of women as extending far beyond the family circle. She wanted women to use their new strength and independence to educate their children and serve their husbands. She never thought of herself as a feminist, but her influence on women’s lives went far beyond what she intended. By supporting and publicizing the founding of Vassar College, she opened the door for girls to leave home to study and work independently of their families.

Education for women wasn’t the only cause Hale worked on. She also created Thanksgiving as a national holiday rather than the quiet New England celebration it had been when she was young. After a long campaign, she persuaded Abraham Lincoln to proclaim the first national Thanksgiving holiday in 1863. Perhaps her work on this had a more lasting effect than any other single goal she pursued. Just think of the millions of dollars spent every year on advertising and merchandizing food and decorations for Thanksgiving celebrations.

Journalists who pull together the work of others to create a magazine, newspaper, or perhaps a television program are often underrated as thought leaders, but many of them have a greater effect on society than the “great books” that cause a stir. It’s the inexorable repetition of a periodical that gradually shapes our ideas far more than one book read during a few days. Perhaps we’ll never know how much Helen Gurley Brown of Sarah J. Hale changed women’s lives, but let’s take at least a few minutes to honor their memories.

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