A woman sits on the edge of a desk, a spray of pink daisies to her left and floral paper on the walls. The desk bears the gentle clutter of somebody busy but not overwhelmed: a leaning stack of papers, a cup filled with too many pencils, a tangle of paper clips. The woman wears a plum-brown dress, cinched at the waist and unbuttoned at the collar, large button-pearl earrings and still more pearls looped around her neck, along with a gold pendant chain. With her hands clasped loosely in her lap, she smiles, her mouth curved into a languid grin.
Helen Gurley Brown was 60 when this picture was taken, and she had reason to be pleased. She had been editing Cosmopolitan magazine for nearly two decades, bringing her mix of workplace confessionals and candid sex tips to a growing demographic of single working women. The photograph would be the cover of her next book, “Having It All: Love, Success, Sex, Money . . . Even if You’re Starting With Nothing,” published in 1982.
Three decades later, “having it all” sounds less like peppy encouragement and more like an admonishment or reproach. The most common incarnation of these three little words is now reserved for the endless debates over whether women can balance the demands of career with the demands of motherhood — an equilibrium that, as the economy continues to grind its gears, feels increasingly out of reach. Last month, The New York Times reported that the percentage of American women in the work force has been falling over the past decade and that 61 percent of nonworking women cite family responsibilities as the reason.
Brown’s book now looks like a charming artifact from a more hopeful time. With “Having It All,” she wanted to reach women who might be ready for more — more love, more money, more stability and, inevitably, more sex — and were willing to work for it.
This article is written by Jennifer Szalai, an editor at The New York Times Book Review.