Fifty years ago today, on Saturday, January 26, 1963, a budding freelance journalist named Gloria Steinem walked over to the recently-opened New York City Playboy Club on East 59th Street off Fifth Avenue and applied to be a Playboy Bunny. Five months later, Show magazine, a glossy arts publication, published the first installment of a two-part expose of life inside The Playboy Club titled A Bunny’s Tale and authored by Gloria Steinem. And the modern Women’s Movement was born.
Of course, several years later, in the late 1960’s, Gloria Steinem became an avowed advocate for women’s rights, helping to found many women’s labor boards and unions, working tirelessly to help campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment, and in 1972, helping to found Ms. magazine, a feminist-themed monthly journal.
But prior to all that she was a freelancer writing puff pieces for Vogue and the Ladies Home Journal, authoring a vapid tome entitled The Beach Book (the dust jacket was lined with foil so the reader could use it while sunbathing on vacation), and dating worldly and famous men who gave her a professional boost. The Gloria Steinem of 1963 was not the Gloria Steinem of 1973, and she had a ways to go before she reached her later enlightened status.
But in 1963 when Gloria detailed life inside the Bunny hutch for the readers of Show magazine it created a mini cause-celebre. The Playboy Club was chic, sophisticated, and glamorous. But what Gloria described was a decided lack of glamour, long hours, lousy tips, rude customers making passes at the Bunnies, chauvinism and misogyny, and revealing costumes so tight they left welts on the Bunnies bodies. Not to mention what one co-worker told Gloria: “Practically all the girls just stuff and stuff. That’s the way Bunnies are supposed to look.”
The publication of A Bunny’s Tale put Gloria Steinem on the map. “Well, it was the wrong map,” Gloria insisted for the next half-century, claiming she was the victim of harassment, intimidation, and lawsuits brought forth by Playboy. And to top it off, as a freelancer she was typecast in journalistic circles—the only articles anyone wanted her to write after A Bunny’s Tale, she complained, were articles in which she went undercover as a prostitute to write an expose of the seamy world of prostitution.
But while some of Gloria’s complaints against the Playboy Club were legitimate, some were the same complaints any waitress working in any restaurant, bar, or lounge in 1963—or now, for that matter—would have encountered.
And there were benefits to working for the Playboy Clubs, as former Bunnies working alongside Gloria pointed out. Bunnies did make good wages, they insisted (despite what Gloria’s article claimed to the contrary), and they learned how to handle themselves as business women. The Playboy Clubs promoted ethnic and racial diversity among the staff and the customers at a time when women of color were largely invisible and segregation was still in place in some Southern states, and the skimpy Bunny costumes left many of the women feeling empowered and liberated, rather than little more than geishas on display; In fact, former Bunny Lisa Aromi explained how she ended up working a full decade at the New York City Playboy Club precisely because of Gloria Steinem’s article.
Writing an article about working undercover as a Playboy Bunny was not a fun experience for Gloria, but it gave her a platform on which to speak about politics, issues concerning race and gender, equal pay and equal rights, and a woman’s right to choose.
Today, in the United States, women are taken seriously in business and in mainstream American society women have as much opportunity to lead independent lives as men do, and part of that is because Gloria Steinem decided to tell a Bunny’s tale.
To read A Bunny’s Tale and an excellent selection of Gloria’s other articles and essays, check out Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions by Gloria Steinem.