(NOTE: Critical Encounters is an initiative at Columbia College Chicago, where I am a member of the adjunct faculty, to stimulate conversation on socially and culturally relevant issues. ┬áThis year’s theme, “Rights, Radicals and Revolutions,” looks at how the art world can create change. Here is my essay about a person who influenced me: Helen Gurley Brown. It was published in “The Columbia Chronicle” on Oct. 24, 2011.”)

Glass sculpture by another favorite radical, Dale Chihuly

I grew up in a place where dreams ran small: Rain for the corn crops, a win for the high school basketball team on Friday night, a blue ribbon for the dress I entered in the 4-H fair. Women rarely worked outside the home. If anything, they were teachers or secretaries. A few were nurses. Despite my father’s resistance, my mother got herself hired as a typist, so I, their first-born, could go to college. That’s where I discovered both “Cosmopolitan” magazine and the women’s movement.┬áThese entities aren’t as opposing as they might seem.

My radical, Helen Gurley Brown, was the long-time editor-in-chief of “Cosmo,” as the publication is affectionately known to its readers. But she didn’t start out that way. She spent many years as a secretary and a copywriter before authoring the then-sensational and best-selling “Sex and the Single Girl” in 1962. Three years later she took the helm of “Cosmopolitan,” and she steered it for 32 years.

Helen Gurley Brown, who married at the age of 37, celebrated women and the single lifestyle. She urged us to pursue big careers, to be financially independent, and to enjoy sex and lots of it–but only when we chose to and when fully protected. She championed birth control when it was inadequate and abortion before it was legal. She promoted inner strength and outer beauty. Unlike her bra-burning contemporaries–and often scorned by them, she delivered her message of freedom and choice while dressed in Diane von Furstenberg wrap dresses and high-heeled pumps. And no one from my generation will forget the infamous nude centerfold of actor and heart-throb Burt Reynolds, with one hand delicately draped in front of his delicates.

The magazine for many years was my personal instruction manual in both life and eyeliner application. When I launched my career as an independent journalist, I took its encouragement to heart. Yes, you can do this, it said, issue after issue. I came to believe that I could.

In more ways than one, my life has paralleled that of my radical. I, too, was a secretary and a copywriter. I went on to write magazine and newspaper features, and have been published in dozens of national and regional consumer, trade, association and special interest publications. I wrote a book about fashion and self-identity. I marched for abortion rights in Washington, D.C., with the National Organization for Women. I underwent the horror of breast cancer. I compiled a stock portfolio and bought a sports car. I got married.

Through it all, I have worn stilettos.

Thank you for everything and more, Helen.