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Journal of the History of Sexuality 15.1 (2006) 89-127

The Joy of Work:
Helen Gurley Brown, Gender, and Sexuality in the White-Collar Office
Julie Berebitsky
Sewanee: University of the South

Everywhere under the seemingly placid surface of business, there is the undercurrent of sex, upsetting, repelling, attracting individuals. . . . But the day's work must be done. . . . So, in most businesses, any outward manifestation of attraction between the sexes is frowned upon by the management, and the dynamite is kept in the cellar, so to speak. . . . [F]or the most part men and women learn to work side by side in business, sublimating their primary urges and becoming almost unconscious of each other's sex. Unless they can do this, their business careers are necessarily short-lived. . . . My observation is that it is much better for a girl to maintain a strictly impersonal relationship with the men where she works and make her conquests elsewhere.

—Elizabeth Gregg MacGibbon, Manners in Business (1936) 1

Elizabeth MacGibbon's advice to women stated what was, for at least the first half of the twentieth century, the unquestioned and conventional wisdom about sex and the workplace: the two do not and should not mix. 2 Productivity suffered, profits declined, and women's jobs were lost and their lives often ruined when they put down their steno pads and picked up a romance with a man from their office. In the early 1960s, however, Helen Gurley Brown pronounced MacGibbon's advice so outdated and out of touch that she liked "to quote her so I can blast her." 3 Rejecting the "unwritten law" to "forget about sex when there's [End Page 89] work to be done," 4 Brown declared expressions of sexuality and romance in the office to be inevitable and productive, a force that could serve all interests, including those of bosses, female office workers, and the bottom line. "Managements who think romances lower the work output are right out of their skulls," Brown told readers of her 1962 best-seller, Sex and the Single Girl. "A girl in love with her boss will knock herself out seven days a week and wish there were more days. Tough on her but fabulous for business!" 5 Brown also dismissed MacGibbon's directive to "make yourself as inconspicuous as possible." Though office women had to tread a fine line between dressing sexily and being appropriately dressed ("raising temperatures without raising eyebrows"), Brown maintained that the days when management "preferred a little brown wren at every desk" were long gone. Office women's personal and professional lives would be well served by a tasteful display of their physical assets. 6 Finally, she encouraged pink-collar women to work hard on their careers by holding out the carrot of romantic perks. 7 "Think about it," Brown opined in the "pippy-poo" style for which she became famous. "Lunching with men is a chance to have dates in the daytime on the pretext of business; . . . business lunch dates with men are sex at high noon!" 8

As difficult as it is for many readers today to stomach Brown's concoction of sex and success, what so disturbed and excited readers in the mid-1960s was less her celebration of the sexy, sex-obsessed office worker than her vision of powerful women making their way in the white-collar world. This vision put forth a new understanding of the white-collar office that questioned its gendered hierarchies and the rationale underlying them. Brown directed women to seek professional advancement, and she tied women's sexual freedom and sexual opportunities directly to their place in the workforce. She also urged women to use gender and, to varying degrees, sexuality for their own gain. By sexualizing the office—or, more accurately, by acknowledging and exploiting the varied expressions of (hetero)sexuality that already existed there—Brown sought to help women circumvent workplace inequalities that kept them in a subordinate position. Her most radical insight...


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pp. 89-127
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