At the Democratic National Convention on Wednesday night, U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland said, "We, the women of the Senate, with President Obama by our side, will keep fighting our shoulders square, our lipstick on because you deserve equal pay for your hard work." She was commenting on the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.
When I was the GA of the Women's Studies program at SUNY Fredonia, I met a range of feminists. Some wore dresses and makeup; others cut their hair short and wrote "womyn." I identify with the former.
Lipstick feminism is a variety of third-wave feminism that sought to embrace traditional concepts of femininity, including the sexual powers of women, alongside traditional feminist ideas. Through the years there has been conflict in the feminist community.
Two weeks ago the author and magazine editor Helen Gurley Brown (HGB) passed away. Her obituary title in the Financial Times: "'Devout feminist' with a bold approach to sex." Because of her three-decade stint at Cosmopolitan, HGB became standard-bearer of lipstick feminism, proclaiming that sex should be pleasurable not only for men.
Her rise to fame began when she wrote about her life as a single woman. In her book "Sex and the Single Girl," HGB advised women to prioritize making money and having sex over motherhood and homemaking. Such candid encouragement of women to take pleasure in sexual and financial independence shocked America.
Soon after the book's debut, Hearst publishing empire asked her to revive the then dowdy Cosmopolitan magazine. She took over in 1965 and turned it into the women's sex bible. She co-opted a Mae West quote to be her mantra: "Good girls go to heaven. Bad girls go everywhere."
While HGB stepped down at Cosmopolitan in 1997, she continued as editor-in-chief of its international editions until her death.
Many feminists have long denounced her advocacy of women using their sexuality as a reversal in progress. There was a sit-in at Cosmopolitan in 1970. In 1982, Gloria Steinem said, "She's fooling herself if she thinks her message is a feminist one. She's telling women that if they look good, smell good, wear the right perfume and underwear, wonderful things will happen to them."
These women's frustrations were understandable while much of the feminist movement was trying to end the objectification of women, HGB was splashing them in glossy print all over the world. But part of what made HGB such a pioneer was that she didn't see heels, dresses and lipstick as shackles that bind us to traditional womanhood. She believed they could enable women to enjoy their femininity.
Many women, including myself, find this liberating.
In a 1996 interview with CNN, HGB maintained that she was a "devout feminist."
"You can be sexual. You can love sex. You can be a sex object," she said. "But you can still be a feminist because feminism has to do with wanting the best for both sexes." She argued that taking charge of one's sexuality was an important issue of self-actualization.
An April 2012 study in the Psychology of Women Quarterly, "Striving for Pleasure Without Fear: Short-Term Effects of Reading a Women's Magazine on Women's Sexual Attitudes," considered just how liberating Cosmopolitan made women.
The experimental groups in the study read articles like "How to Make Fast Sex Fab" and "10 Sizzling Secrets of Women Who Love Sex," while the control groups were given sexually neutral content from Entertainment Weekly. The participants then filled out surveys, which evaluated gender ideology and sexual attitudes.
Reading articles that promoted women using their appearance to attract men affected the subject's attitudes in a different way than expected. Frequent readers of such magazines were actually less likely to endorse a submissive female sexual role immediately after reading the Cosmo articles, while the opposite occurred after women who were less familiar with such content were exposed to it.
Cosmopolitan has morphed into a cleavage-bearing monster that tends to play into the male gaze. HGB wasn't perfect.
But that shouldn't quash everything she did for women. Feminism is an evolutionary movement. We are constantly learning from our mistakes, educating each other, understanding new perspectives and adapting to the world.
"You can have it all," HGB famously put it. "And it's a hell of a lot of work. And it causes considerable stress. I never, so to speak, had it all. But I had my all, which is what I wanted: work and love."
How can this not be in line with the feminist movement?