Phyllis Diller and Helen Gurley Brown

21 Aug

Helen Gurley Brown and Phyllis Diller both died this month. But, you already knew that. You probably also already knew that Diller came to her indelibly memorable career after the age of 37.  Likewise, Gurley Brown published her best-selling, myth-busting “Sex and the Single Girl” at age 40 and then went on to be the iconic editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan. For women born in 1917 and 1922 respectively, 40 years old was middle age, maybe even “over the hill.” Women of my grandmother’s generation didn’t often begin successful, “big name” careers late in life.

English: Phyllis Diller. Picture taken at the ...

English: Phyllis Diller. Picture taken at the her home in Brentwood, California, USA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was only tangentially aware of Phyllis Diller. She was the funny, somewhat (even then) old woman who guest starred on television programs. Her shrill voice punctuated jokes with a hyena laugh.  She often dressed in outrageous costumes that highlighted her age and stage in life. She was not unattractive, but she played up the fact that she was not conventionally (i.e. “moviestar” ) pretty and she deliberately hid her shape under gaudy clothing. Her looks simply weren’t the point, unless she could make a joke out of them.

As today’s New York Times noted,

Her success proved that female comedians could be as aggressive or unconventional as their male counterparts, and leave an audience just as devastated.

Many have said that Diller paved the way for the likes of Roseanne Barr, Whoopi Goldberg, and Ellen deGeneres.   Let us not forget that she also led the charge for comediennes  from Carol Burnett to Sarah Silverman, Mo Gaffney, and Kathy Najimy.Likewise, though I read Cosmo, and took its famous quizzes with my girlfriends, I had no idea who Helen Gurley Brown was until I was in college. Even then, I mostly knew that she was editor-in-chief of Cosmo when I worked in the magazine industry in New York. “Sex and the Single Girl” wasn’t on my reading list–not even when I studied feminist theory in graduate school and read Betty Friedan’s “Feminine Mystique.” Helen Gurley Brown

Neither Gurley Brown nor Diller would have called themselves feminists in the way of the theorists I studied. Yet, the paths they cleared were every bit as important for my generation and those that follow us.  Gurley Brown, along with Friedan and the authors of “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” taught us that we are in control of our bodies, our sexuality, our reproductive health.  She debunked the theory that unmarried women weren’t having sex (sorry, she was way ahead of Mad Men, but certainly her book is anthropological research for the program) and through Cosmo she helped millions of women learn that it was okay to enjoy sex.  Our mothers had not been taught this and many of them were not capable of teaching it to us. But, they never objected to tossing Cosmo into the grocery cart.

Diller taught us that we didn’t have to love housework or be conventionally attractive. She grew into her show business career, finding that the humor she used to deflect her unhappiness appealed to others. With the encouragement of her husband, she figured out how to get paid to make people laugh. And laugh we did.  Diller continued making us laugh even into her old age, when she noted that “you know you’re old when your birth certificate is on a scroll.”

In light of this week’s  gaffes by Representative Akin and the RNC’s adoption of a strong anti-abortion, abstinence education platform, the lessons taught by Gurley Brown and Diller couldn’t be more important–that women need to find their voices, use them loudly and often, and take charge of their own health, welfare, and bodies. If we don’t, no one will.

As I write this I can’t help but note that my mother shares her first name with Diller (though no one calls her Phyllis) and my grandmother shared hers with Gurley Brown. Perhaps a coincidence related to common names. I choose to believe that there are no coincidences and to embrace Diller’s and Gurley Brown’s legacies as my own. I doubt I’ll break the kind of ground they did, but at least I’ll stand my own.

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