- The Battle in Every Man's Bed:Playboy and the Fiery Feminists
I was a feminist before there was such a thing as feminism. That's a part of the history very few people know.1—Hugh Hefner, founder of Playboy magazine
It may seem obvious that Playboy and the women's movement would come to blows by the early 1970s. Indeed they did throughout the previous decade. In 1962 journalist and future feminist leader Gloria Steinem went undercover to work briefly at the Playboy Club in Chicago as a "bunny" waitress.2 Writing for Show magazine, she claimed poor working conditions and sexual harassment of women. Six years later in Atlantic City, New Jersey, radical feminists denounced the "Unbeatable Madonna-Whore Combination" promoted by Playboy and the Miss America pageant that was held there annually.3 Many feminists decried Playboy's use of centerfold "playmates" and bunnies as objectifying and degrading.
Despite these oft-cited critiques, Playboy took a progressive stance on women's rights throughout the 1960s and 1970s and was particularly vocal in support of abortion. Evidence of this position can be found in the magazine's articles and editorials as well as in the charitable donations of the Playboy Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the magazine, which contributed thousands of dollars to abortion rights organizations before Roe v. Wade overturned antiabortion laws in the United States. In addition, the Playboy Foundation provided the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) [End Page 259] with funds for its work on women's rights and helped fund day-care centers for working mothers, all indications that Playboy's gender politics, while complex and contradictory, were much more woman friendly than previous historical accounts have acknowledged.
Most feminist critiques of Playboy understandably tend to focus on the centerfolds, and scholars seem to agree that the playmates represent the objectification and degradation of women. For instance, historian Bill Osgerby writes that Playboy "was a pantheon to the sexual exploitation of women," while Maria Elena Buszek accuses Playboy of "casual misogyny."4 Numerous other observers of the past fifty years, both lay and academic, have already noted the sexist nature of the magazine. The point is certainly well taken, but Playboy offered America more than just pictures of naked women. The magazine hosted important discussions about women's liberation. Nonetheless, there has been very little consideration of the ways in which, apart from its centerfolds, Playboy's words and money may have contributed to the growth of feminism. Indeed, by the early 1970s the magazine served as a regular, progressive, and mainstream forum for discussions of women's expanding roles in society.
The publication needed actively to support liberated womanhood for several reasons. Ideologically, the hedonism central to the Playboy lifestyle would not have been possible without women free to live and love as they liked. In earlier generations middle-class men had patronized prostitutes and working-class women and thus "protected the purity of women of their own class."5 But according to the Playboy philosophy, the bachelor lifestyle depended upon the man's sexual desirability to women of his own social and economic rank. If the bachelor had to pay for sex, then his image as a playboy would be compromised. Similarly, if the Victorian double standard [End Page 260] continued to constrain women's sexuality, then the bachelor would lack the ultimate validation of willing and able sexual partners.
Professionally, Hefner and his editors needed to address the feminist movement because they saw their magazine as a serious journalistic vehicle. Playboy covered other important cultural and political trends of the sixties, including the civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam, and the emerging drug culture. If it had failed to discuss women's liberation, critics would have accused the magazine of not taking the needs and concerns of women seriously. This neglect would also have bolstered feminist criticism of Playboy and further demonized Hefner in the eyes of many American liberals. Lastly, many Playboy readers demanded that the magazine deal with the question of feminism. Men and women alike wrote letters to Playboy airing their diverse views on the subject, and they challenged the magazine to do...