Helen was undoubtedly a trailblazer. In the 1960s and '70s, she made an impression as a forward-thinking, passionate writer and editor at Cosmopolitan, at a time when women were more likely to be fetching coffee than editing magazine copy.
She quickly became the poster child for women who desperately wanted more than the humdrum daily rhythm of life as stay-at-home mums, inspiring an entire generation of women to stretch themselves and expect more.
There’s only one problem with her philosophy that “women shouldn't settle for less than the best in their lives" — she left out one tiny detail: sacrifice. Because the truth is, women can have it all (or, at least, quite a bit) with this very important proviso.
Somewhere along the way, Helen’s message that women can have everything they desire failed to carry the subtext that sacrifice will be involved in the mosaic of creating a fulfilling life.
It’s when we strive towards an imaginary place of balance, diversity and success — without accepting the fact that sacrifice is also going to be part of the picture — that we continue to fall flat.
You might sacrifice a clean house to spend time playing with your kids.
You might sacrifice time with your kids and send them to daycare so you can invest some time in your career.
You might even sacrifice having a family altogether to build a thriving, fulfilling career.
Or you might decide not to work at all while you have kids and sacrifice your income as a result.
So why do we expect to be able to have everything we want in life — a satisfying career, a family, a great husband and marriage, financial security, a nice house and a little extra time in the day to exercise and clean and catch up with friends — without appreciating that some things (big and little) will need to be sacrificed along the way?
Helen was well acquainted with sacrifice. She met and married David Brown, who was just as committed to his career as she was, and together they spent several nights a week in their Park Avenue apartment, working until the wee hours of the morning on magazine copy and coverlines. They never had children and she worked until she was well into her eighties.
These are not necessarily problems; sacrifice, hard work and resilience are all a part of life. And they’re all some of the ingredients of “having it all”.
So as we commemorate the passing of Helen Gurley Brown, I want to say thank you to the woman who paved the way for women just like me to have a career in publishing.
But I will also reflect on the fact that while having it all is worth fighting for, it doesn’t always come easily.
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