Sue Ellen Browder begins her memoir, Subverted: How I Helped the Sexual Revolution Hijack the Women’s Movement, with the confession that “I can give you no justification for what I did in my former life.” Browder worked for Helen Gurley Brown at Cosmopolitan magazine, which helped ferment the unholy brew that became the modern woman’s movement.
Because the book is published by Ignatius Press, a Catholic publishing house in California, you probably already know where this is all going to end up. But the journey is interesting and, being a seasoned magazine writer, Browder knows how to tell a tale and weave in some intellectual history in a crisp, engaging manner.
A small-town girl, Browder grew up in Iowa and saw “promises of freedom, true love, and adventure” in the glossy magazines displayed at the local Rexall Drug store. If you are a certain age and not from the northeast or some other glittering hub of sophistication, you know this frame of mind all too well. Browder got a degree from the University of Missouri School of Journalism and married Walter Browder, another aspiring writer, who was working his way through college when they met. The couple then set off to conquer New York. In 1970, Browder was hired by Cosmo and continued a relationship with the magazine, on staff and later as a freelance writer, for many years.
The editor of Cosmo was the inimitable Brown, who’d risen from early poverty and being, as a biographer put it, a “kept woman,” to running one of the most successful magazines in publishing history. Brown’s “Sex and the Single Girl” (1962) was a precursor to Candace Bushnell’s “Sex in the City.” Perhaps the Cosmo girl’s philosophy could be best summed up in the title for one of Brown’s most famous articles: “How to Get Men to Give You Presents.”
Brown had an ambiguous relationship, to say the least, with the feminist movement. Her offices were once occupied by feminist stalwarts led by “Sexual Politics” author Kate Millett, who forced the reluctant Brown to endure a “consciousness raising” session. “I was only into my eighth hangup,” she later confessed, “when I had to relinquish the floor to the next hangup-ee.” This is not in Browder’s book, by the way, though it happened the year Cosmo hired her, and I suspect it may be missing because it contradicts her thesis of Brown as something of a feminist foremother. She wasn’t, but I do agree with Browder that the Cosmo girl values, or lack thereof, came to permeate the women’s movement.
One of the leading impediments to success, as Brown saw it, was motherhood. “Helen saw not lack of education or economic opportunities but motherhood as ‘the insurmountable obstacle to real liberation for women,'” Browder writes, quoting from Brown biographer Jennifer Scanlon, who also sought to portray Brown as a “feminist trailblazer.” Brown wrote that women are held back in the corporate world by the “built-in mechanism in their bodies that allows them to have babies.”
While Browder, by now the mother of a son, was leading a home life “as cheery as a scene out of Mary Poppins,” she was by day writing and editing articles on such matters as what to do “When He Doesn’t Want Sex” or how to deal with “Those Ubiquitous Vaginal Infections” that she subsequently came to rightly regard as “hard-core sex-revolution propaganda masquerading as fluff.”
Brown was born to be a leader of the sexual revolution (despite by all accounts having had a happy marriage of 51 years to movie and theatre producer David Brown). But Browder tries to make Betty Friedan – the real founder of the women’s movement as we know it, whose groundbreaking “The Feminine Mystique” came out in 1963 – somebody who just wanted to make things better in practical ways for women. According to Friedan, women suffered from some “problem without a name,” likely the result of being cooped up at home rather than engaging in “creative” work elsewhere. (You can tell that the movement leadership is largely affluent –nobody just wants a job; they want “creative” work.) Browder is not alone in wanting to portray the women’s movement as something fundamentally good that was hijacked. I don’t buy it.
Asking where did the feminist movement go wrong is like wringing your hands and wondering when that nice lad from Minnesota became “radicalized” and took to making bombs in the basement. The movement, the one Friedan and other leaders of the National Organization for Women (NOW) shaped, started off bad. When proponents of the hijacked theory talk of a “good” feminist movement – which they often call First Wave feminism – they go back to the nineteenth century, or earlier, and up to the early twentieth century. It included the suffragettes and focused on such matters as contract and property rights and the right to vote (although some, such as Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, would be at home with today’s feminists).
But so-called Second Wave feminism is so different from the movement led by the earlier women, often church women, that the two look to be different movements. Rather than being hijacked, NOW’s brand of feminism started out quite radical. It wasn’t a second wave, but a first wave in its own right. Friedan came to make abortion a central plank in NOW’s agenda in part because Lawrence Lader, author of the influential book “Abortion,” knew his cause could get a shove if the women’s movement adopted it and thus targeted Friedan.
Browder also seems to think the outcome of the raucous meeting at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington DC in 1968, at which abortion rights became a NOW demand, could have gone either way (again, very well-reported by the readable Browder). Browder refers to the deciding vote as the “Mere Fifty-Seven” in favor of the abortion plank – but with only 14 voting against it, that wasn’t quite as mere as one might think. She annoyingly calls Justice Harry Blackmun, who wrote for the majority in the 1972 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, “Harry” and makes it sound almost as if the poor little fellow also reached his decision accidentally.
But despite taking issue with these characterizations, Browder’s reporting is always good and her picture of Lader, whose strategy of making the Catholic hierarchy the villain has had a profound influence, is excellent. “The idea of death before birth – for that is what abortion is – fascinated him,” she wrote.
As I said, given the provenance of this book, we can guess where the author ultimately will seek meaning. But the story is well-told and anyone who has been a freelance writer will recognize many of the Browder family’s vicissitudes (when will that check come?). Contrary to the gospel preached at Cosmo, Browder became a wife and mother, often in difficult circumstances. Along the way, fearful of the financial future and already the mother of two small children, Sue Ellen had an abortion. “[I]n my mind, abortion was an integral part of the women’s movement, a right as fundamental as equal pay for equal work.”
Setting Her Free
The belief did not prevent her from being haunted by the act. Walter Browder, who died of cancer in 2007, comes across as an interesting but maddening man, who was always on the verge of literary success before something got in the way. But that didn’t stop Walter from believing enough in his craft to get up and write at three in the morning. Some of his ideas sound like you’d want to kill him if you were his wife, such as pursuing a novel about cats who team up to prevent an owner from being kidnapped by a bad guy. Still, Walter was such a novel character that I longed for a photo of him. But there were no pictures.
The Browders were strapped for money – their electricity was turned off twice –and they travel from East to West Coast several times in pursuit of better opportunities for Walter, until their books and articles put them on a firmer financial footing. Sue Ellen’s “The New Age Baby Name Book,” which evolved from an earlier baby names book, came out in the nineties and still sells. But the real story in the book is how the Cosmo writer found a different way of looking at things and became a Catholic.
Walter, who had once said “I want to know God’s reality” and was for much of the book an Episcopalian, led the way. While living in a small town in California’s Redwoods country, the Browders found an Episcopal church that was falling apart. When a female priest told Sue Ellen she didn’t have to believe in miracles, she wondered, “If He wasn’t able to perform miracles, how is He going to raise me from the dead?”
When, however, her husband suggested that they “try the Catholic Church,” she snapped, “I’m not going to join that patriarchal old church!” Still, she began reading Catholic history to rebuff her husband’s strange suggestion. “My brief foray into church history plainly showed me Protestantism at its roots was hardly the place to seek women’s liberation,” she wrote.
Although Walter had never talked about the abortion, in speaking with the priest, he blurted out, “We’ve had an abortion!” Browder had believed it was a burden she carried alone. “The deeper and much more fundamental error of [Roe v. Wade],” she wrote, “in [Walter’s] view, was that it enshrined into U.S. law the egoistic and Fear Culture mindset bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment – the belief that a woman is alone in the universe, cut off from God and man, locked away in the prison of her own body, with no hope that anyone will ever love her enough to set her free.”
Walter Browder died in the ICU on the Eighth Day of Christmas with the former Cosmo girl singing hymns and prayers into his ear. Sue Ellen Browder does a good job of telling her story, and leaves no doubt that of the two philosophies that guided her life, it’s Catholicism, not feminism, that proved to be the most liberating.