Sex and the Singular Woman: The Assumption and Helen Gurley Brown

When I was exactly three weeks old, Pope Pius XII proclaimed the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary to be a truth of the Catholic faith. The year I turned 12, Helen Gurley Brown published Sex and the Single Girl. I have to admit that for most of our lives, women my age—Catholic or not, for good or for ill—have been more influenced by the latter event than by the former. Today, on the Vigil of the Solemnity of the Assumption, as the mainstream media fill with tributes to the late Gurley Brown’s contributions to the sexual revolution and the fulfillment of women, I’m reflecting yet again on what it means to be embodied as a woman.

It’s not a subject, or an experience, with which I’ve ever been entirely comfortable. Chronically underweight as a girl and a teen,  chronically overweight in the nearly 40 years since the birth of my son, I have never resembled the Cosmo Girl. Inept at even the most solitary, noncompetitive sports—I never learned to swim or ride a bicycle—I don’t have the athlete’s confident sense of being at home in the flesh. I’ve lived in my head most of my life, and the people who have been attracted to me have been drawn, without exception, to what’s in that head. Oh, I have had my share and more of the bodily pleasure Helen Gurley Brown announced was my birthright, but I’m more likely to experience sensory than sensual gratification.

So in a way neither Pius XII nor Helen Gurley Brown held out a model with which I could identify. It’s no surprise, feeling as untethered from the physical (while, ironically, “grossly closed in” by more than a few extra pounds of what Shakespeare called “this muddy vesture of decay”) as I have for so long, that I found refuge in Gnosticism for a time. When you’re a large, clumsy woman in a hot climate, the notion that the body is a trap and an illusion is mightily alluring.

The blessing in this is that I never had to unlearn the lessons of Sex and the Single Girl, the way the overgrown, overblown Sex and the City girls never could. I have not had to wake up one morning to the horrifying revelation that I cannot Have It All. Pleasure as Gurley Brown defined it—whether my own or the pleasure of a man, to which Cosmo promised 10 new secrets every month—is nowhere near the top of my agenda, if it’s even on there at all. And I can’t begin to imagine the kind of vanity—or despair—that led Gurley Brown, according to Kathleen Parker in today’s Seattle Times, to get breast implants at 73 and lament her “fat tummy” at 85.

But I take no pride. The curse in my clinging to this Gnostic strain of body-rejection is that it keeps me from anticipating fully the “complete beatitude” of which Mary’s Assumption is the pledge and promise. In the light of the Assumption—the joyous reunion of body and soul destined for all humanity from the beginning of creation—my living in my head is as sinful a denial of a woman’s call to holiness as living for bodily pleasure alone. When describing Mary’s glorified presence in heaven, St Bonaventure (one of a long line of Franciscan champions of the necessity of the Assumption, long before it was codified as dogma) argued:

She is there [in heaven] bodily. . . . Her blessedness would not have been complete unless she were there as a person. The soul is not a person, but the soul, joined to the body, is a person. It is manifest that she is there in soul and in body. Otherwise she would not possess her complete beatitude.

In Munificentissimus Deus (“The most bountiful God”), his apostolic constitution defining the doctrine of the Assumption, Pius XII struck as startling a blow for the equality of women as Gurley Brown would ever imagine. “It is reasonable and fitting,” he wrote, “that not only the soul and body of a man, but also the soul and body of a woman should have already attained heavenly glory.” Mary—not the single girl, but the singular woman—is who we are, and how we have it all.

If it’s as difficult as it is for a woman like me to embrace that heavenly glory of equality, the complete beatitude of body and soul joined in personhood, how can the truth of the Assumption be spoken to those raised on Helen Gurley Brown? What value can virginity—which, in Mary, is never the rejection of sex or the body, but the total dedication of self to God, the freest will of all to say Yes—have for women (and men) who are told that selfish sexual gratification is all there is, and they can have it? What value is there in the flesh totally transfigured and irradiated with spirit in a world where flesh and its accoutrements are merely soulless commodities? What value is there in holding out the promise of unending joy in a time when we suffer from the shortest of happiness attention spans?

In the stilted language of the day, Pius XII proposed these same questions:

And so we may hope that those who meditate upon the glorious example Mary offers us may be more and more convinced of the value of a human life entirely devoted to carrying out the heavenly Father’s will and to bringing good to others. Thus, while the illusory teachings of materialism and the corruption of morals that follows from these teachings threaten to extinguish the light of virtue and to ruin the lives of men by exciting discord among them, in this magnificent way all may see clearly to what a lofty goal our bodies and souls are destined. Finally it is our hope that belief in Mary’s bodily Assumption into heaven will make our belief in our own resurrection stronger and render it more effective.

To say there are no answers, or that it’s too late for the message of the Assumption to reach our jaded senses, our calloused souls, would be to deny the very miracle by which Mary was raised up, “when the course of her earthly life had ended” (Catholic teaching leaves open both the tradition that Mary died, and the belief that she was preserved from bodily death by her sinlessness—making Mary, in some odd way, like Schrodinger’s cat). The Assumption says, No matter what this world or Cosmopolitan magazine tells you about bodies and souls, women and men, time and eternity, you’re in for a big surprise. Which is why they say, Never assume.

In the time I have left (uninterrupted by breast implants or tummy tucks), I want to work on getting the message of that glorious surprise across. I will start by befriending this body a little, climbing out of my head, spending more time in that place of complete beatitude, body and soul as one, I only approach when I let myself dance. I’ll let Edna St Vincent Millay’s words from Sonnet XXIX of Fatal Interview (itself on one level a call to unthinking pleasure, on another a perfect call to the dance of body and soul that is the Assumption) be my “bedside companion,” as Cosmo used to call itself:

Heart, have no pity on this house of bone:
Shake it with dancing, break it down with joy . . . 


  • Woodeene

    Mary as Schrodinger’s cat. Apropos, even though the thought has never crossed my mind before.

  • Karen

    I really don’t understand how an intelligent woman can find anything appealing about your church’s view of Mary. There is exactly zero Scriptural support for the dogmas about her, and the message usually given to women is to imitate her submisssive and meek character by never seeking education, employment or agency. Learn to love morning sickness and scrubbing floors and hiding the bruises from your husband’s beatings. Really what good is this?

    • joannemcportland

      Karen, if that were the Church’s view of Mary, or of women, I would agree with you. Yes, I deplore the inadequacy of our messaging, which is often—as in the examples you give—diametrically opposed to the truth, either deliberately or, more probably, because we humans don’t have a big enough vocabulary. Nothing about Mary—whether in the scriptural evidence or in the tradition that dates to the earliest years of Christianity—in any way promotes victimization or oppression, but that’s hard to see when the world’s definitions of humility and submission to God are all framed as loss of agency and personal fulfillment, instead of the epitome of those things. I will try to do a better job of disowning the false messages you hear about women in Catholicism, if you will try to listen harder past them. What is the highest, most fulfilling notion of being a woman—or a person, since I don’t want to get into unnecessary gender limitations—for you? Who models that, in history or at present? This would be an interesting topic to pursue.

    • Serena

      The Church has never taught anything within light-years of this straw-man eyewash. Borrow a catechism.

    • Iris Celeste

      Actually, Ladies, you are wrong. In antiquity, Jewish women were taught to read. They were the only group of women in antiquity which were taught to be literate, due to the place of scripture in Jewish society. Catholic tradition also holds that Mary was in the temple in Jerusalem as a child. She supposedly was taught by Anna the prophetess, but that is oral, none scriptural tradition, that the Church has preserved. As for scriptural significance, boy oh boy, are you wrong there too! Lets see in the wedding at Cans, when Jesus did not want to do a miracle, only a word from His Mom causes him to turn the water into wine. At the crucifixion, when all the male apostles and disciples exempt one were hiding, it was Mary and the other Holy women who kept watch over Our Lord, unafraid of any consequences to their very visible support. In Pentecost, Mary was gathered with the disciples in the upper room. She was at this time the anchor the apostles relied on now that Jesus had ascended to heaven until they received the courage they needed from the Holy Spirit.

      Re-read the scriptures. Perhaps learn a bit more about antiquity and Catholic tradition.

  • Elizabeth Scalia

    I’m right there with you, Joanne; relating all too well.

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  • Bill M.

    I can hardly imagine a more remarkable convergence than the Feast of the Assumption and the death of one Helen Gurley Brown. Thank you for nailing it with such beauty and subtlety.

  • The Hermit

    Thank you for this.
    Blessed Feast Day.

  • http://theAnchoress Tom Carty

    The best piece I’ve read in a long time! The wisdom of the gospels shines through it. The assumption of Mary vs. breast implants at 73 pretty much captures the distance we fallen from reference for Mary to paying attention to the thoughts of Helen Gurley Brown.Thank you, Joanne.

  • Marilyn Crawford

    “making Mary, in some odd way, like Schrodinger’s cat “- absolutely perfect!!! (or purrfect). Whenever I work to explain why the Church is not a sexist old relic, I am always using the “dead white guys” commitment to the equality of the sexes but somehow ‘missed’ how important that Christ and His Mother are both bodily in heaven – male and female representing the “totality” of humanity. Great stuff to think about. Thank you.

  • Julie Booth

    Thank you for this meditation on the glorious examples both women offer us — showing the value of a human life devoted to bringing good to others.
    Requiescat in Pace Helen Gurley Brown.
    Blessed Feast Day, Blessed Virgin Mary.

  • Joseph H. M. Ortiz

    I think this post of Ms. McPortland’s is interesting, informative, and even enlightening. But while I repudiate Platonism as an armchair philosophy, and while I gladly hold that union with the body is for the great benefit of the soul (ad melius animae, I think is the traditional phrase), I can’t go along with the contention of St. Bonaventure and others that I must be united with my body in order to have personhood. In order to have personhood fully, O.K.; but in order to have it at all, Uh-uh: counter-intuitive, I opinionatedly maintain.

  • Manny

    The beauty of this well written piece (actually all your pieces are well written) counter acted that revolting image of breast implants at 73. At 73???? I can’t relate to Cosmo Girl but it’s obviously part of our cultural rot. All I can say is that I’ve had a really good day venerating our Blessed Mother today. From this morning’s mass onward, even with little disappointments, my day has had a special aura to it.

  • David DeAtkine

    Though this comment is somewhat tangential, the abiding presence of Mary in Catholicism as been a very great comfort to this middle-aged guy raised in the Baptist Church– turned Catholic 3 years ago….as a husband and as a father (of a son and a daughter) I struggle simultaneously with my own envy, lust and covetousness and also with my desire to be a good father and husband. Venerating Mary helps me (imperfect as I still assuredly am) do that. Here is a great woman; a hero, who can be loved and appealed to — who in bearing the Godhead can understand any problems I might fumble into and offer then to her Son –” do whatever He asks of you”. Loving Mary makes it possible for me to see my own mother, my daughter, my wife, and the women I encounter every day with a tenderness and regard that I might not otherwise have. Though Chivalry is no longer seen as a virtue in many quarters today, I see Chivalry as the virtuous veneration of Mary applied by men to all women.

  • Diane D’Angelo

    Really well-written piece, and I’m glad you’ve pointed out the insanity of a 73-year-old woman’s vanity masked as liberation. However, as regards Mary, the opposite is true: the insanity of a church doctrine that promotes a “virgin birth.” Never mind for a moment the historical aspect of the early church’s quest for power that necessitated bringing in a female deity to expand its power to those worshipping Mother Nature. Lofty interpretations of Mary’s supposed virginity are “never the rejection of sex or the body, but the total dedication of self to God,” somehow are not available to the masses. The damage done to women and men from this made-up story, with its roots in hatred toward sexuality and the body, has done incredible damage.

    • joannemcportland

      Diane, try reading some of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the significance of Mary’s virginity. It’s empowerment, not oppression, though I agree it is not always portrayed that way.