The Marriage Tango

Bad Girls Go Everywhere:
The Life of Helen Gurley Brown
  • Jennifer Scanlon
  • Oxford University Press, 2009; 288 pages, $27.95
Beside Every Successful Man:
A Woman’s Guide to Having it All
  • Megan Basham
  • Crown Forum, 2008; 256 pages, $24.95

These books offer a fascinating look at two alternative models of husband-wife relationships. In each marriage, the spouses are working toward common goals. How the two models differ is the wife’s focus: one wife’s stated purpose is to make her husband a priority—she concentrates on helping her man achieve career success, believing that his job satisfaction will lead to a stronger marriage; the other wife pours energy into being indispensible to her already-successful husband’s well-being in order to ensure her own professional success.

In art, the focal point can make an enormous difference. What about in marriage? Does a wife’s motivation matter as long as she is making her husband happy and strengthening their marriage? No shortage of advice exists about what leads to mutuality in successful relationships. Counselors stress the importance of a couple working together—collaboration as opposed to competition—with the strengths of one spouse balancing out the weaknesses of the other. More romantic Americans believe that a good relationship happens when a man and woman compliment and fulfill each other, arguing that a husband and wife together are stronger than either would be as a separate entity; pragmatists, on the other hand, argue that fulfillment is nothing more than each spouse getting something out of the relationship.

Helen Gurley Brown made a career out of getting what she wants out of relationships. Jennifer Scanlon’s book about her life is a stunning account of how the “me” generation flourished. Everything that Brown has written in her extraordinarily prolific career as a celebrity author, glamorous New York socialite, and three decades of editing Cosmopolitan advanced the idea that women have to look out for themselves, “play” by their own rules, and work the system in order to get ahead.

And work the system she did. In her biography of Brown, Bad Girls Go Everywhere, Scanlon chronicles the variety of ways that Helen manipulated men to get money and gifts, using sex and opportunism to reach her goals. In her signature style—breezy, irreverent, playful, sexy, humorous, and confessional—Brown sold several generations of women on the idea that promiscuity is sophisticated and that smart women use sex to move up in the world. Scanlon describes in fascinating detail the myriad of mercenary ways Brown “evened out” the gaps in male-female income by making men pay for everything.

After living the sexually liberated life that she advocated for thirty-five years, Helen decided she was ready for marriage. Clearly, with every passing year, her opportunities for using sex to get ahead were narrowing. She also realized—perhaps unconsciously, but given her philosophy and pragmatic approach to life and career, it was probably a conscious decision—that she couldn’t make the jump from phenomenally successful executive secretary to member of the upper-crust professional class without marrying someone who bridged that chasm for her. Wealthy film studio executive, David Brown, was the perfect candidate; she “fell in love with his credentials.” While she knew that he didn’t love her, that David respected her financial and career accomplishments was enough. She set out on a “lengthy and frustrating” crusade to become his wife.

David, whose New York publishing career paved his way to Hollywood, had the pedigree, record of success, and the literary connections Helen needed to reach her ultimate goal. Apparently, she decided that marriage to a man like David—“charming, smart, and wealthy”—was the stepping stone to move up to the patrician level she thought her due. As Scanlon describes it, Helen and David “forged a new path by manipulating rather than negating the old norms of masculinity and femininity.” Their marital bargain was simple: he would “support her, unequivocally, in her professional life, and she in turn would serve him, unequivocally, in their domestic world.” Not surprisingly, from her point of view, “men who help women with their careers are sexier than men with flat stomachs, large biceps, and other remarkable assets.”

Their partnership provided a new challenge for David—overseeing the “planning, writing, editing, marketing, and publication of Helen Gurley Brown’s 1962 smash hit, Sex and the Single Girl.” For Helen, the marriage led to an international platform to promote her fantasy of free sex and her image as the successful career woman in total control of her life and future. More importantly, becoming Mrs. David Brown allowed her to move out of the advertising ghetto into the high-powered New York publishing world.

Granted, Helen Gurley Brown had the talent and style to write a book as phenomenally successful as Sex and the Single Girl. “But neither her calculating shrewdness nor her racy prose would have guaranteed her success as a best-selling celebrity author without the active involvement of David, whose experience and connections gave him the requisite blend of Hollywood glitter and New York publishing savvy to make the book a world-wide best seller.

In 1964, a reporter asked Brown if she had changed her mind and decided that “a woman’s priority in life should be to please the man in her life?” Helen responded, “pleasing your man” is merely being “self-serving” because pleasing a man enables you to get the man and have a happier time and a better marriage. “Man pleasing,” she answered in the interview, “has to do with keeping your relationship desirable and happy, it also has to do with getting a man to commit to you if he hasn’t yet done so.”

How ironic: the queen of sexual liberation ends up in a marriage and focused on securing her husband’s commitment to fidelity. That a woman who built a career on warning other women to avoid needing a man ends up realizing that happiness depends on getting a certain man to marry her, and then making that husband happy, is irony times two. To further compound the irony, Brown, who wrote extensively about the importance of a woman controlling her own destiny, recognizes her dependence upon her husband for her professional success just as he comes to realize his dependence upon her for his personal well-being.

The author of Beside Every Successful Man, approaches marriage from a different perspective. Megan Basham starts out with the premise that her husband needs her for his professional success and that his well-being is essential to her happiness. Basham’s view is that a wife should work and sacrifice to ensure her husband’s professional success in order to strengthen their marriage and assure mutual happiness. She cites the relationship between former President John Adams and his wife, Abigail, as an illustration of the kind of partnership that enables a husband to reach his potential and the couple to be happy and fulfilled. Abigail Adams’s kind of unselfish giving to her husband, according to Basham, is the road that leads to a good marriage and a wife’s happiness.

Whereas Brown bases her arguments solely on her own personal opinions and ideas, Basham’s solidly researched book is full of social science evidence for her thesis that a husband’s “breadwinning responsibilities, and the ability to fulfill them, continue to be particularly salient for married men’s well-being.” She cites evidence that while “women tend to categorize work and family as two separate issues; to men they are inextricable.” Basham believes that when women take a “step back” they enable their husbands to move closer to the top and the wives closer to home.

The findings of a Gallup poll indicating that “only 20 percent of today’s labor force believe their jobs utilize their best assets” has a bearing on Basham’s journey to marital happiness. She set about, in the mode of Abigail Adams, to help her husband discover his best assets, find a career that would be satisfying, and develop a plan that would ultimately enable him to achieve success. She interviewed the wives of men from a variety of professions to discover and identify the ways that actual women have helped their husbands to succeed.

Basham found that “two-thirds of chief executives, managing directors, and other business leaders say that when they’re facing a tough challenge at work the first person they look to for advice is their spouse.” Pollsters found that wives provided objectivity and honesty that husbands trusted. Basham’s respondents indicated that they relied on their wives not for business acumen, but for “insight into personalities.” She quotes a neurobiologist who found that the female brain is far more gifted at “quickly assessing the thoughts, beliefs, and intentions of others based on the smallest hints.” That understanding, of course, extends to the husband; wives know their husbands better than their closest advisors at work. In this way, a wife’s input into her husband’s career can be invaluable.

Other research noted by Basham indicates that “women have wider social circles and more friends than men,” so they are able to assist their husbands in networking and public relations. This quality is especially helpful since “90 percent of all executives landed their jobs through networking.” Basham is not advocating a wife’s servility, but “marital interdependence” from which “deep affection and admiration” can grow. She quotes Antoine de Saint-Exupery: “Real love isn’t just gazing into each other’s eyes. It’s looking out together in the same direction.” Basham argues that because men tend to see themselves through their wives’ eyes, “wives have an inherent effect on their husbands’ growth.” In other words, a wife’s vision of her husband shapes a husband’s view of himself.

Basham notes that few people follow a straight career path; the idea of an employee rising through the ranks of an organization in predictable steps is outdated. Citing figures that the average American changes jobs seven to ten times over a lifetime, Basham believes that most people have to move to another organization or another field to advance their careers. The wise wife, then, helps her man discover his strengths and move toward positions and organizations that utilize those strengths. Basham thinks people waste time and energy trying to compensate for weaknesses; instead, she thinks they should seek to optimize their strengths.

Both Basham and Brown have interdependent marriages, but their motivations and approaches to marriage are opposite. Readers have no way of looking inside these two relationships to compare the quality of the respective marriages, but it is hard to imagine David Brown writing to Helen with “all the tenderness of [his] heart” like John Adams wrote to Abigail, calling her his “best, dearest, worthiest, wisest friend in this world.” That Brian Basham, however, could write that tribute to his “helpmeet” and wife, Megan, seems every bit as promising as their model of marriage.

Dr. Crouse is the director of, and senior fellow at, the Beverly LaHaye Institute, the research arm of Concerned Women for America, in Washington, D.C.