Playboy Campaigned for Abortion Rights While Railing Against Women
The men's magazine recently rebranded as "Entertainment for All," prompting skepticism from some. But Playboy's relationship to the liberal feminist movement is longer and more nuanced than most people realize.
"I don't think we're dealing with real life, anyway, until the child is born and his personality begins to take shape; so the old argument against abortion, I think, is completely out of date," Dr. Allen J. Moore, an associate professor of Christian education at Claremont School of Theology, said in June 1967. But he wasn't offering his pro-choice argument in an interview with the New Republic, or in a feature about changing attitudes toward abortion in the second-wave feminist magazine Spare Rib, or even in an op-ed the New York Times. He was denouncing the Catholic belief that life starts at conception in a religion panel published in an issue of Playboy.
The monthly magazine earned its fame publishing Marilyn Monroe's nudes—and later, built its reputation through portraits of Playmates, the publication's typically blonde, always girl-next-door nude models. But throughout the 1960s and 70s, Playboy also helped transform Americans' perceptions about female sexuality—and became a prominent supporter of abortion rights. The magazine published pro-choice articles and interviews as early as 1963, a decade before Roe v. Wade legalized abortion across the country; gave platforms to women like Margaret Atwood and Germaine Greer, despite the latter disagreeing with many of Playboy's principles; and helped fund the Equal Rights Amendment and Kinsey Institute through its non-profit Playboy Foundation.
"There is sexism and patriarchy in Playboy magazine and the gender worldview of the magazine," acknowledges Colorado State University history professor Carrie Pitzulo, who wrote the literal book on Playboy's feminism, Bachelors and Bunnies: The Sexual Politics of Playboy. "But I don't think it's gotten nearly enough credit for… the supportive stance that the magazine often took towards women and… liberal feminism."
Hugh Hefner founded Playboy in 1953 with the help of a $1,000 investment from his mother, Grace, a Methodist from Nebraska who supported her son but disagreed with his life's work. Hefner's early 1950s issues gave equal weight to art, mixed drinks, literary fiction by writers like Ray Bradbury, and naked, big-breasted blondes; the combination evoked Hefner's belief, expanded into the Playboy Philosophy, that sex is as important to being a gentleman as manners and dressing well. "We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d'oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex," Hefner wrote of the ideal Playboy reader in the first issue.
Early readers would have encountered few obvious feminist inclinations in the philosophy. Throughout the 1950s, Playboy's Party Jokes section included crass one-liners depicting women as gold diggers who used pregnancy to trap men. "Our Unabashed Dictionary defines gold digger as a girl who breaks dates by going out with them," states the May 1958 issue. In the September 1958 issue, writer Philip Wylie laments, "The ladies won the legal advantages of equality—and kept the social advantages of their protected position on the pedestal. To them, equality meant the tyrant's throne." (The sexist passage comes below the headline "The Womanization of America.")
But on other pages of early issues, something else was going on. Hefner employed a pinup model and photographer, Bunny Yeager, who took some of the most famous images of Betty Page, to shoot some of the Playmate pictorials. "It's easier for a woman," Yeager said, "to ask a girl to take off her clothes," according to her Washington Post obituary. But she also imbued her Playmate of the Month spreads with a subtle wit. Her Miss December 1956 Playmate of the Month pictorial captures model Lisa Winters in baby blue lingerie, totally sheer but also high-necked and down to her shins, pulling back a curtain in the pose of a housewife; a mirror opposite depicts not the reverse image, but a much sultrier version of Winters. "She loves to read and spends at least one day a week in the public library. Her special favorites are the love poems of Elisabeth Barrett Browning," reads the accompanying text. "She calls herself a 'home girl.'"
Features like this were common in the 1950s issues of Playboy. Before the magazine reveals the rear end of Miss July 1958, Linné Nanette Ahlstrand, it shows her playing chess in a turtleneck and describes her interests as "[setting] down to an evening of excellent theatre or a good foreign film." When readers finally see her naked, she's smiling. She is single, loves sex, and looks like she could be your neighbor. Playmate centerfolds suggested that all girls, even suburban or intellectual ones, enjoy sex. As the profile of Miss August 1957, Dolores Donlon, says, "For every girl (unless she's a hermit, and we don't know many of those) lives next door to someone; and, in this sense, every girl is a girl-next-door." A million porn companies have copied Playboy's infamous "girls next door" aesthetic, but though today the idea has come to raise unrealistic expectations for women, in the 1950s it was revolutionary.
"Even when they were publishing their most sexist kind of commentary, the magazine said that 'good girls'—which would have been the kind of terminology used at the time—'like sex, too,'" Pitzulo explains. "They had a right to sex. They had a right to own their own sexuality and [to] express it, even outside marriage. Of course, that's done in the service of heterosexual men, because heterosexual men basically can't get laid if there aren't willing women outside of marriage, but in the 1950s it was really important. [Playboy was] one of the only mainstream voices to say that women had a right to their sexuality, too."
As the 1950s became the 1960s, Hefner grew incensed with prude societal standards dictating anyone's sexual behavior. He devoured Betty Friedan's 1963 feminist manifesto, The Feminine Mystique, and found himself agreeing, if not downright empathizing, with the feminist leader's depictions of society squandering women's choices in the home, bedroom, and workplace. "Women's frustration in the household," he said, according to the book Playboy and the Making of the Good Life in Modern America, "had a direct parallel to my feeling that there was something going on… that just didn't make sense."
In 1965, Playboy published a Julian Huxley feature that supported abortion—eight years before Roe v. Wade. The same year the magazine came out in favor of a woman's right to choose, Hefner founded the Playboy Foundation, a non-profit that gave money to the Kinsey Institute, rape crisis centers, and the Clergy Consultation Service, an organization that connected women with abortion services. After the Playboy Foundation donated to the ACLU Women's Rights Project, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, then an attorney at the ACLU, cosigned a thank-you note published in the August 1973 issue: "The A.C.L.U. fought for the right to abortion long before the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decision. Now we advocate abortions and birth control for minors without parental consent."
Throughout the late 1960s and the early 1970s, editors used the Playboy Forum, the magazine's equivalent of a letters to the editor section, to publish activists' letters. "A lot of activists used the Forum… as a clearinghouse for information and updates on progress," Pitzulo says, adding that they listed new state abortion laws, providers' phone numbers, and positive anecdotes about abortion. In what sounds like something out of xoJane, the March 1971 issue excerpted a nun's account of her abortion.
Hefner gave abortion experts more space in the magazine, with the September 1970 issue including Dr. Robert Hall's history of abortion in North America, in which he called out Christian beliefs about abortion as "theological metaphysics." ("In a nation founded on the principle of separation of church and state," he writes, "[their belief] should never have been introduced to our courtrooms and legislative chambers.") These pieces ran in a magazine alongside nudes and interviews with people like Martin Luther King Jr.
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Playboy's stories mattered, because the bunny had become as ubiquitous as Mickey Mouse in the 1960s and 1970s. Hefner hosted the hit CBS program Playboy After Dark, in which he and bunny tail–clad women entertained celebrity guests, and he opened a chain of Playboy Clubs in 1960. (When Southern franchise owners refused black club members' admission, Hugh bought the clubs back and installed his own, more progressive management.) Playboy Enterprises was a full-fledged media conglomerate (before that was a thing), and the flagship magazine had grown into one of the premiere publications for an influential set of professional, liberal men, with circulation climbing to over seven million readers in 1972.
"People really did read it for the articles in the 1960s," Pitzulo says. "They probably looked at the centerfold first, but they looked to Playboy as a standard-bearer for these conversations… [Playboy was] considered one of the leading arbiters of these conversations. On feminism and women's rights, and on civil rights… Playboy was leading the way."
"He used the platform and soapbox to then push these agendas," says Cooper Hefner, Hugh's son and Playboy's current chief creative officer. "What made him do this: an obligation, a feeling like this is not the world I want to live in."
Many liberal feminists supported Playboy, but radical feminists disliked the magazine. Women protested outside the Chicago headquarters, and the Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (WITCH) went so far as mailing Hugh a death threat in 1970.
From the Chicago Playboy Mansion, where he lived and worked, Hefner went on the offensive. According to Pitzulo's essay, "The Battle in Every Man's Bed: 'Playboy' and the Fiery Feminists," he ordered editors to commission a satirical takedown of "superfeminists." Editorial director AC Spectorsky and others debated the idea, before settling on hiring a serious female journalist to write a complicated feature on the women's movement. They argued that the article could acknowledge women's legitimate grievances while taking issue with those that Hefner viewed as militant feminists. Hefner agreed.
Playboy turned to Susan Braudy, a young New York writer who would later receive a Pulitzer nomination. (Braudy did not respond to multiple requests for comment.) Pitzulo reports that she turned in a draft that rebuked the Redstockings for their "no sex strikes" and claimed WITCH wrecked Atlantic City during their 1968 Miss America protest. The worst, in Braudy's point of view, was Roxanne Dunbar: She led Cell 16 in Boston, and Braudy claimed she "read Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex and walked out on her husband and a child with a birth defect." Friedan, though, Braudy wrote according to Pitzulo, led a "conservative and pragmatic" movement.
"The Battle in Every Man's Bed" presents Playboy's male editors as divided over the story, but many of its notable female editors—associate editor Julia Trelease, copy chief Arlene Bouras, the associate cartoon editor Michelle Altman—opposed the story. Braudy remembers it differently. In a 2016 Jezebel essay, she recalls Trelease complimenting her work.
"The good old boys club and saying, 'No women allowed'? That's fucking stupid to me."
Whatever their opinions actually were, Hefner didn't think Braudy was tough enough. In early January 1970, according to Pitzulo, he issued a memo saying, "What I'm interested in is the highly irrational, emotional, kookie trend that feminism has taken in the last couple of years. These chicks are our natural enemy and there is… nothing we can say in the pages of Playboy that will convince them that we are not. It is time to do battle with them and I think we can do it."
Editor Nat Lehrman called Braudy to his office, where Braudy recalls him telling her the article had "snags." "By building my story around three central figures—Betty Friedan, Robin Morgan and Roxanne Dunbar—I'd been too sympathetic to 'crazies' within the movement," she writes, relaying the magazine's opinion in Jezebel. "Boy, was I naive. How could I have believed that Playboy would run a fair article about women's liberation?" While in his office, she says in a 1971 Glamour magazine article, she viewed Hefner's memo. A protracted editorial battle ensued, and at some point, Braudy writes, she decided to revoke her draft from publication.
Instead, the magazine published a takedown of feminism, which included rants about women more generally, by a male writer, Morton Hunt. Published in the May 1970 edition, Hunt's "Up Against the Wall, Male Chauvinist Pig!" reads like something out of a men's rights chat room. "The women's liberation movement is unique," Hunt wrote. "No other recent struggle for human rights has been so frivolous and yet so earnest, so absurd and yet so justified, so obsessed on the one hand with trivia and, on the other, with the radical restructuring of male-female relationships, of family life and of society itself." He goes on to mock 20 women for signing up for karate in Berkeley, California, stating that they wanted to "invade the men's locker room." "Sneer at all this, if you like," he says, "but don't deceive yourself that it's nothing but the exhibitionism of a handful of neurotics, uglies and dykes."
Playboy's female editors hated the letter. According to "The Battle in Every Man's Bed," literary editor Mary Ann Stuart wrote to Hugh that the article promoted traditional female roles.
Later that same month, on May 26, 1970, Hugh appeared on The Dick Cavett Show to fight back, debating radical feminist Susan Brownmiller, author of Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape. Wearing a vest and turtleneck, she labeled Hugh "my enemy." She accused him of making women "look like animals." "Women are not rabbits," she informed Hefner. "They're not bunnies. They're human beings." Unsure how to respond, Hefner silently puffed on his pipe.
"Hefner really overreacted to those critiques instead of understanding that, 'Yes, the magazine's portrayals of heterosexual, feminine beauty and sexuality were problematic,'" Pitzulo explains. "They certainly could be seen as problematic from a radical feminist perspective. But [Playboy] just said, 'No, no, no, no, no. You're fighting the wrong enemy. We're on your side.' That's where a lot of this misplaced reputation for anti-feminism came from. It was from Hefner's overreaction to the radical feminists, instead of him focusing on his support for liberal feminism, which was legitimate."
Obsessed with what he believed were radical feminists' offenses, Hefner diminished the important work he had done in the 1960s. Though it's not as if he did a complete 180: He opened up Playboy to radical feminist Germaine Greer two years later in a January 1972 interview, in which she took Friedan to task ("What she wants for [women] is equality of opportunity within the status quo, free admission to the world of the ulcer and the coronary") but reserved her harshest venom for Hefner, mocking his "breast fetishism"—her logic being that female bodies never orgasm from men touching their boobs.
"In any case, it's not just the centerfold I disapprove of," Greer complained. "It's all the other images of women in Playboy. Why, you even ran a shoe advertisement that showed an Indian squaw stroking some dude's damn shoes! And those Playboy parties are so awful. All those bleary faces and those haggard men and those pumped-up women in their see-through dresses, with everyone's nipples poking out and those fixed, glittering, maniacal smiles on all the girls' faces."
Playboy went on to praise Greer several times. In the following decades, the Playboy Foundation funded support for the Equal Rights Amendment; fiction editor Alice K. Turner published Joyce Carol Oates and Ursula K. Le Guin; and Hefner appointed his daughter, Christie Hefner, to succeed him as CEO. She held the role for 20 years, making her one of America's longest-serving female chief executives.
But faced with a legacy that includes so many nude women, few remember the positive contributions the magazine made toward women's rights. Playboy has not done the best job of advertising their contributions to feminism; Cooper himself admits he only learned of his father's activism when he attended the 2009 screening of Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist, and Rebel in a dingy downtown Los Angeles theater. He rushed home and rummaged through his father's scrapbook collection documenting his work. (Hugh maintains the world's largest scrapbook collection, according to Guinness World Records.)
As the company's current head of creative content, Cooper has tried to shift the brand to a more explicit acknowledgment of its past feminism. Cooper returned to the company last July as the head of content after feuding with CEO Scott Flanders, who chose to remove nudity from the magazine in October 2015. Cooper reversed the decision in February of this year. "It was a misread of the culture outside of these walls," he told me at Playboy's Beverly Hills headquarters. "It was a misread on the brand." The first new nude issue featured nude portraits of Cooper's fiancé, Harry Potter actress Scarlett Byrne. Instead of an interview accompanying her pictorial, Byrne wrote an essay about the #FreeTheNipple movement.
"I think it's insane that a guy can be topless on Men's Health, and woman cannot be topless on the cover of Playboy," Cooper says. "That is a feminist fight."
#FreeTheNipple resembles many of Playboy's earliest feminist fights. It purports to help women claim their right to sexuality, but there's also, inevitably, something in it for men who want to see more photos of women's boobs. Feminist critics also questioned the validity of Cooper's updated Playboy Philosophy; in the Outline, writer Laura June called it an attempt to "mansplain women's rights" and noted that the "attempt to sell a new 'woke' Playboy to readers is fairly transparent."
Cooper, though, seems to understand the contradictions of the family business. "We live in a very different time than when the magazine first started," he said. "How do you make sure that men are comfortable owning their masculinity, and giving them permission to be men, but not make women feel like they don't have a voice at the table?"
For starters, he has replaced the classic tagline "Entertainment for Men" with "Entertainment for All." Instead of employing men to write about feminism, he's hired women and made plans to bring more LGBTQ people into the Playboy fold. Bisexual pop star Halsey is on the cover of the September/October issue, and at the recent Midsummer Night's Dream Party at the Playboy Mansion, I spotted as many gay men flashing their midriffs as women were.
"I like getting together with my guy friends and having a night, but the good old boys club and saying, 'No women allowed'? That's fucking stupid to me," Cooper said. "I don't want the brand—and the brand will not—represent that."