Almost as soon as I arrived in Manhattan to seek my fortune, I backed into a knuckle-bruising battle with Playboy’s Hugh Hefner.
My new city-slick literary agent Lois Wallace had signed me because she liked my articles in a zippy new Yale monthly called The New Journal. So after Playboy editors approached Lois about a piece on something called the new feminism, she lipped a smoke ring into her telephone and asked me, “How’d you like to be the first woman to write for Playboy?”
The year was 1969. I thought Playboy defined cheesy, but I was too timid to say so. Furthermore, I was afraid to admit I’d never heard of any new feminists.
Lois, however sophisticated, was a shouter: “You’re in New York, dammit, not in some ivory tower.”
Jim Goode, Playboy’s articles editor, contacted me that afternoon. Speaking more slowly than I thought a human could, he explained that Playboy wanted an objective account of the entire spectrum of the brand new “women’s lib” movement. “These women have important things to say, and I want our readers to hear them,” he said. “Let yourself go. Write anything you like but don’t pass judgment. Be fair.”
He concluded, “Write in a tone that’s amused if the author is amused, but never snide.”
I didn’t dare tell him I knew nothing of these women and, moreover, I’d always written about subjects of my own choosing. But Lois shouted again and I accepted the assignment. I began scouring underground newspapers like the East Village Other and Rat for people to interview, ultimately attending my first consciousness-raising meeting with seven Columbia grad students in a Salvation Army-arty apartment above an Upper West Side Chinese restaurant. I quickly learned consciousness-raising was based on a Chinese revolution concept called “speaking bitterness.” For my subjects, it meant articulating the private indignities they suffered because they were women.
The Columbia students wept into clumps of damp Kleenex and gently chorused, “The personal is political.” I kept my mouth shut but I didn’t agree: my favorite writer Albert Camus had said, “We always take a step forward when we substitute a personal problem for a political problem.”
One silky-haired girl picked at her toes and sipped black coffee from a mug as she described her first (“icky”) sexual experience. As a journalist I felt elated because I’d connected with a fantastic and untold story. As a fellow human being and a woman I admired her guts. Yet I was repelled by the way she dwelled on what seemed to me to be private problems she could fix or learn to live with. I didn’t fall asleep easily that night.
But even if I didn’t feel comfortable generalizing from what the Columbia women had said, I knew they were speaking honestly. I didn’t yet know how moving it was to attend these sessions. It would take me more time to discover their sad stories were alike.
At meeting after meeting I heard a wide range of women speak passionately or woodenly about their “women’s rage.” They hurled questions: Why did men insist they were “helping” a woman do her job if they did housework? Should women compete for power outside the home like men? Would women ever be as free to enjoy sex as men?
Yet I wasn’t ready to make the leap from anecdotes to political analysis. Of course I saw my husband as my superior intellectually and socially; that’s largely why I was drawn to him. I hadn’t consciously dared to resent this. I’d been given many votes of no confidence by men trusted with my higher education. My philosophy professor had given me an A before he bought me a chocolate chip ice cream cone and advised me to quit grad school and get married.
I’d been kicked out of the Elizabethan Club at Yale, whose members were (still all-male) students, because, as a butler informed me, the club was for men only. (“What about her?” I asked, pointing to the oil painting of a sour Queen Elizabeth.) My fellow New Journal editor, Dan Yergin, looked sheepish as we left. That same week, I poked my head in Yale’s Sterling Library’s Linonia and Brothers reading room, filled with old leather club chairs. I heard snickers and two preppy-looking boys got red in the face. I thought my bra strap was showing or, as a faculty wife, I looked too old to be a student. A male librarian soon explained that after some controversy the space had only recently been opened to women.
But once again I’d assumed there was something wrong with me. I was a “ball buster” (words used rarely now) because I wanted to read in that beautiful room. Now one short year later in New York, talking to crazed visionary feminists blew my mind.
I soon interviewed Ti-Grace Atkinson, who had been my classmate in an ethics seminar. Ti-Grace, a southern beauty with a sense of humor, was in my mind (like many visionaries, alas) mad as a hatter. She told Life that the Mafiosos like “sister Joe Colombo” were her model for seizing power from men. She startled me by explaining what later become obvious: men allowed even privileged women only so much power.
Upon questioning me, Ti-Grace learned I’d married after I’d left graduate school. I confessed to her I considered marriage my only alternative once I decided not to pursue a lifelong study of philosophy. I said I loved my husband and I would have married him eventually, graduate school or no. But I had suffered during the early years of our marriage because my husband seemed so confident in his identity and work as a Yale graduate student of English, whereas I had no goal, except the marriage. “I pity you,” she said tears brimming her eyes. “How can you love the oppressor?”
And she added, though her manner belied the harshness of her words, that since I was taking advantage of the feminist movement to further my ambitions, I should expect little sympathy from her when Playboy put me out with the trash. As I was leaving, she recovered herself, thumped me on the back and recommended a divorce lawyer, who, though a man, was good and inexpensive. She advised me to write my article separate from my husband to protect myself from being seduced to a man’s point of view.
Women like Ti-Grace had a gut-wrenching new logic on their side. I was struck by her conviction that we lived in a patriarchy. I joined her (as research for my article, I told myself) when she picketed the marriage license bureau.
Radical feminists were so angry it was almost impossible for them to organize. Ti-Grace was censured by her splinter group for sounding off to the press. She’d become too famous, and her colleagues voted she could no longer speak to reporters alone.
Others disagreed about whether men could join marches and if feminism could include married women or any women who were “male-identified,” then meaning conforming to standards set by men. Groups were forming and shattering because of social class, distrust, ambition, personal dislike, and consensus about whom to purge. When Yoko Ono brought John Lennon to one meeting, women shouted back and forth until he fled.
Roxanne Dunbar came from Boston to perform in New York: six women sat on stage and solemnly chopped off their long hair because their tresses pleased men. Other women cried, cheered and cursed Roxanne from their folding chairs. One woman exited yelling, “You’re all dykes!” Anselma Dell’Olio shouted, “Am I supposed to cut off my breasts because men like them?”
After a few skirmishes that made my stomach hurt, I stopped introducing myself as a journalist writing an article for Playboy. If after I’d been talking to a woman for a while and I had established my honest sympathy, I’d mention Playboy was looking for an article and I was going to sell mine to them. I showed some of them my New Journal article on Robert Penn Warren. Most women shrugged disdainfully and wished me luck. They said Playboy would never print an objective article.
As my feelings about second-wave feminist theory grew more positive. I was seized by conflicts. To quote Joan Didion in another context, “I began to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself.” I realized that I frequently viewed other women as competitors for men. I’d enjoyed my education at Philadelphia High School for Girls and at Bryn Mawr college but I preferred arguing ideas with boys. Now the question growing in me was why have we women put up with isolation from each other. It became clearer and clearer that problems I’d cringed over in private shame were suffered by most women.
Of the fifty-some women I interviewed, Gloria Steinem was the one I liked best. At this point she wasn’t a feminist activist, but a respected journalist in miniskirts and suede who reported positively on the new movement. She was not a mad visionary, but utterly contained.
I was hypnotized by Gloria. She was as gorgeous as anybody I’d seen on the movie screen and was what I longed to be—a sophisticated New York woman. She exhaled dazzle. Her exquisite Upper East Side brownstone apartment had been decorated by the Warhol superstar “Baby Jane” Holzer. Gloria slept on a hip platform bed and used her bedroom as a home office. She stocked her refrigerator with only two green bottles of Perrier water and a lime.
I watched a parade of men ring her doorbell proffering chocolates, flowers, and publishing offers. “I’ll never get married,” she told me. “Fifty percent of the women in this town are masochists—they’re wives. Wives get no respect. Widows get respect.”
During one of our interviews I watched her slowly peel thorns off yellow rose stems with her super long fingernails, a gift from the publisher of Chelsea Books.
When I confessed my fear that Playboy would never publish an objective article on the new feminism, she kindly encouraged me, saying that it was vital to try to send a message to their readers.
A few weeks later I telephoned Gloria and invited her to march with me (and 20,000 others) on August 26th in Betty Friedan’s 1970 Women’s Strike for Equality. Gloria was apologetic: she would be on the West Coast to support the farm workers’ leader Cesar Chavez.
Marching made me giddy. “I am not a Barbie Doll,” chanted the group in front of me; others behind me yelled, “Don’t iron while the strike is hot.” Friedan gave a rousing speech. Gloria spoke as well; I later found out she’d been persuaded at the last minute to forgo her Cesar Chavez obligation.
I soon accompanied Friedan to Philadelphia where she was to speak about masculine liberation at St. Joseph’s, a Catholic men’s college. At St. Joseph’s, Mrs. Friedan stood tall and wore a gold brooch on her chic black tent dress. She attacked Freud’s sacrosanct notion of penis envy, patting her casually coiffed gray hair before the tittering male audience. “Men don’t think with their penises any more than women think with their vaginas,” she said. “When men are freed from masculine stereotypes like not being able to cry, then they will be liberated too.”
Today her ideas seem casually acceptable. But when I first heard Friedan speak I seized on her words as my rationalization for writing for Playboy and reburied my guilt in missionary zeal. Of course, I thought, I’ll key my Playboy article to masculine liberation. Stereotypes for both sexes limit lives.
On our way back to Manhattan I became disenchanted with her when at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station she berated an elderly female ticket seller for being old and slow. Not a practicing feminist, not a kind person.
After I sent my article to Playboy, editor Jim Goode telephoned. “You’ve done a fair and objective piece. You followed instructions.” All that remained was a routine clearance of the piece by A.C. Spectorsky, the associate publisher and editorial director.
I panicked when Goode told me a woman named Sandy North would be calling from The Atlantic to interview me about troubles I’d had covering “women’s lib” both from male editors and movement women. I feared it was a ruse: someone I’d interviewed checking up on me.
“Just get rid of her if she calls,” Goode said. When North telephoned I was obnoxiously smug: “I’m having no problems with my male editors at Playboy.”
I was still feeling victorious a few weeks later when I found myself in Chicago researching an article for Life magazine. I decided to give Goode a kind of well-I’m-in-town-so-I-thought-I’d-say-hello call. He invited me to lunch. At the Playboy offices, Goode became suddenly busy but sent me to lunch with the magazine’s lone woman editor Julia Trelease. I shivered. But I told myself nobody was going to diminish me or Trelease. She turned out to have an amused perspective on our position: the rare woman writer being schlepped onto the sole woman editor.
Several female secretaries joined us. One mentioned that the joke going around the office before I’d arrived was that I would be instantly recognizable because I’d be wearing combat boots and battle fatigues. (Actually, I had deliberately worn a soft pink short dress and even managed to wash my hair before I stepped into what was then the land of air-brushed pubic hair.) One secretary pursed her lips and told me that she didn’t think my article would ever see print. When I nervously questioned her, she answered vaguely, “Oh, I just don’t trust people around here when it comes to women.”
At lunch I discovered these Playboy women knew much more about the new feminism than I’d expected. They’d read my article and liked it. I worried aloud about confronting Playboy on such a sensitive issue: women displayed breasts in Playboy, not brains.
Trelease said she’d been upset when she was made an editor because her name was not put on the masthead. Finally, after arguments, the other editors suggested she go on as “J. Trelease,” since they knew “Hef” wouldn’t like a female name on the masthead. When she insisted she be listed as Julia, it was done. But nobody had enough nerve to point out her name to “Hef,” and Julia wasn’t sure he ever noticed.
Afterwards I chatted with Nat Lehrman, the associate publisher and self-described “sex editor.” He joked about castrating women, nervously jingling coins in his pants pockets.
My article had a couple snags, he said. 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. Lehrman had penciled in a few suggestions which he said pointed up the differences between “the radical crazies and the moderates.” He apologetically read me his “minor” corrections. “It’ll be a snap,” he coaxed.
But within a few hours the experience of debating a Playboy muckety-muck about the existence of the clitoral orgasm lost its charm. I started to suspect our fights were turning Mr. Lehrman on. I was a soft-core interlude.
Boy, was I naive. How could I have believed that Playboy would run a fair article about women’s liberation? Hugh Hefner had admitted on the Dick Cavett show, with a sincere furrow between his brows and a large suck on his pipe, that Playboy didn’t try to present a three-dimensioned view of women in pictures and stories. Why? Well, because the magazine is written for men, not women.
But I didn’t see why a magazine that titillated men couldn’t present real women. Why couldn’t Playboy display a woman’s jokes, insights, bitches, and loves—in short, human characteristics? Why must she be unreal — smoothed to blandness?
Lehrman extended his “light edit” by solemnly citing chapter and verse of the pompous and sleezy Playboy “philosophy.” He spoke of erotic stimuli and societal repression. I bent my head to the table to take notes, hiding behind my long hair.
That night in my hotel room in the Playboy building I puked into a wastebasket. My husband was encouraging on the phone. “Keep taking notes, drink water,” he said.
The next day, Hugh Hefner materialized and handed me a memo about my piece. He was the first man I’d ever spoken to with dyed hair. Hefner claimed he’d gotten late word that an objective article was in the works and he was furious that such a piece could have been assigned behind his back.
I skimmed his memo, my stomach churning. I hurriedly copied as much of it as I could:
The women’s movement is rejecting the overall roles that men and women play in our society—the notion that there should be any differences between the sexes whatever other than the physiological ones. It is an extremely anti-sexual unnatural thing they are reaching for. It is now up to us to do a really expert, personal demolition job. Clearly if you analyze all of the most basic premises of the extreme new form of feminism, you will find them unalterably opposed to the romantic boy-girl society that PLAYBOY promotes. Doing a rather neutral piece on the pros and cons of feminism strikes me as being rather pointless for PLAYBOY. What I’m interested in is the highly irrational, emotional, kookie trend that feminism has taken. These chicks are our natural enemy — and there is, incidentally, nothing that we can say in the pages of PLAYBOY that will convince them that we are not.
We must destroy them before they destroy the PLAYBOY way of life.
My stomach growled, but I was speechless.
I didn’t get how right Hefner was. It took us decades, but it happened: ordinary women helped destroy the Playboy way of life as a model of coolness for American men. At the age of 89, an apparently immortal Hefner has acquiesced: Playboy, which has featured nude women—famous and not—in its pages since its first issue in 1953, no longer publishes pictures of naked women.
But back then, Hefner’s memo meant trouble for his naive Playboy editors and for me. “Sex expert” Lehrman ushered me into his office decorated by photos of women posed with nightclubby 1950s provocativeness. He played with the change in his pants pocket. I no longer felt shy. I was angry.
Lehrman waved “Hef’s” memo, declaring that bigger changes were in order. And more upsetting, he decided to argue me into making those changes. Debate ensued; I politely refused to skew topic sentences and details against my article subjects.
Lehrman had written “bull” in pencil over the paragraph of my article dealing with masturbation and the clitoral orgasm. For the second time in two days we returned to our argument about this. This time I was more assertive. I explained that Masters and Johnson had written in their first book that the clitoral orgasm, self-induced, gave women they tested a more physiologically intense orgasm than did “normal” sex.
Possible implications of this had been seized upon by radical women’s liberationists. First of all, they felt deprived. Second, the most radical of them pointed out that men are not necessary to a woman’s sexual fulfillment. And the clitoral orgasm is much more important than patriarchal pillars like Freud, who labeled it immature, had preached.
Lehrman was angry. He tossed me a reprint of a Playboy interview he’d conducted with Masters and Johnson. He said it proved “women’s libbers” had misinterpreted the experts. He then directed his secretary to get him “Bill” on the telephone, and while looking at me out of the corner of his eye to make sure I was impressed, he let me know “Bill” was Dr. William Masters.
I sweetly said I was impressed.
His secretary got “Bill” on the telephone. Before they spoke I took out a cigarette and tried to conciliate, using the Hugh Hefner matchbook I’d gotten earlier that day. Lehrman shook his head, and tossed me his own matchbook.
Women were not supposed to win arguments about masturbation when fighting with Playboy sex experts. But I did. First Masters spoke to Lehrman, then Masters deferred to Johnson for a woman’s view. She concurred: women who masturbated to clitoral orgasm registered more intense orgasms than they did with vaginal orgasms achieved during intercourse.
I felt uncomfortable during the short silence that followed the call. I knew I shouldn’t claim victory with a great shout. I guess I was what some of my feminist subjects called “Aunt Tomming.” “Pretty weird,” I said, nodding my head a few times.
I didn’t say another word to Lehrman about masturbation. But we continued to argue. He kept saying, “I told them not to hire a writer with ideological hangups.”
Lehrman asked me to spend another night in Chicago while he puzzled out a compromise. The next morning, he offered me a solution. I was to redo my article to remove every nuance of editorial sympathy with the feminists—any analysis would be deleted. It would be coldly descriptive. Then, a male author would write a speculative, separate article analyzing sex roles in this country, which would tout the Playboy line. Herbert Gold, Lionel Tiger, Philip Roth—these were a few of the names I heard discussed as potential masculine analysts. I was in the halls of power.
I called my husband and told him that I was not going to be home that night as we’d planned. Back in my hotel room, I ordered a solitary dinner, took two Valium and went to sleep.
At nine the next morning I greeted Lehrman, who offered me an olive branch. He told me with a flashing glance that avoided meeting my eyes that our argument had upset him so much that he had to take a sleeping pill to get to sleep. “Well,” I smiled, prepared to accept the peace offer, “it took two tranquilizers to get me asleep.” “Tsk, tsk,” he wagged his finger at me. “No good, no good, that lowers the sex urge.”
I then argued about my article with a different editor. I asked if I could simply use the first person to speak as a woman. No, he said, and insisted I write solely about man-hating in the movement. I retreated to note-taking. At one point I asked for a guarantee that if I agreed to changes in the article Playboy would make no further edits. He said, “Not on such a sensitive issue.”
During our discussion, several hip-looking Playboy people ducked into the office to tell me abruptly they were on my side. Male editors told me they were upset that Playboy’s first serious article on the role of American women would emphasize the militant crazies of the women’s liberation movement without trying to probe historical and psychological reasons for their actions. One young woman said she’d been sad ever since she’d heard what was happening to my article, predicting trouble among Playboy’s woman employees.
I didn’t realize yet that the issue of Playboy’s distortion of the women’s rights battle and its casual byproduct—the refusal to allow me my own voice in an article I’d been assigned to write and which had been accepted by the editors who assigned it—was much bigger than my personal defeat. For starters, Playboy’s mistreatment of the women’s point of view had more relevance to the women who worked in Hefner’s empire than to me.
I withdrew my article: it would not be published. I soon learned Playboy hired Morton Hunt to write a piece expressing Hefner’s point of view.
Months later I heard a TV news broadcaster announce, “Playboy employee quits over exploitation of women by Hefner.”
I wasn’t sure I’d heard the words right, but sure enough, Shelly Schlicker, a Playboy secretary, had been caught late one night in Playboy offices xeroxing Hugh Hefner’s memo about my article. Playboy’s article on the new feminism, titled “Up Against The Wall, Male Chauvinist Pig!” had just appeared and Schlicker wanted to get Hefner’s revealing memo about my piece to the press.
Her story was picked up by many underground newspapers and by Newsweek, which praised my courage and quoted a Hefner spokesman that HH still stood behind his memo. Hunt’s article astonishingly concluded by relegating the women’s movement to “the discard pile of history”; in response, Newsweek called it a “long, rambling, and rather dull article.” (A year later Newsweek hired me as their second woman writer ever.)
I laughed. Playboy’s title for Hunt’s piece (“Up Against The Wall, Male Chauvinist Pig!”) was the kind of invective I was too “ladylike” to hurl at the magazine’s editors. But I would have loved to have had the chutzpah to have said, “Up against the centerfold, MCP.”
Susan Braudy is the Pulitzer Prize nominated author of five books including her 1975 bestselling memoir Between Marriage and Divorce: A Woman’s Diary and her historic investigation of a liberal dynasty, Family Circle: The Boudins and the Aristocracy of the Left. She’s written screenplays for Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, and Francis Ford Coppola, and is on the board of The New Journal at Yale. She wrote about her experience at Playboy previously at Glamour in May 1971.
All covers via Playboy.com. Photos of Gloria Steinem and Hugh Hefner via AP Images.