While it is getting more difficult to find areas that unite people on opposite sides of the political spectrum, I think that neither liberal-leaning feminists nor conservative, traditionally minded women are shedding tears for Playboy founder Hugh Hefner. Before I proceed to destroy that Kumbaya moment, let’s take a minute to enjoy it.
It is easy to focus scorn on the founder of movements you don’t like. I’m not a fan of Playboy magazine, Playboy Clubs or the Playboy philosophy that encouraged sexual liberation. However, the Hefner empire wasn’t built because the government forced men to purchase its products or forced women to participate in its businesses. Men chose to buy magazines and become key-holders at the clubs; women chose to pose for the magazine and auditioned to work at the clubs. Many married women chose to either look the other way or chuckle when their husbands subscribed to Playboy and visited the clubs, sometimes even accompanying them. Lack of participation from either men or women could have derailed Hefner’s vision.
In 1963, Gloria Steinem took advantage of her figure and looks to go undercover as a reporter and describe the experience of spending a short time as a Playboy Bunny. Her exposé presents a rather unflattering picture of the men patronizing the club, but the women working at the club didn’t come off well either. About a decade later, Ms. Steinem founded Ms. Magazine and helped popularize the phrase, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” promoting the idea that men were fine for sexual fun, but there was no need for marriage.
In 1992, Hugh Hefner told The New York TImes how proud he was, “That I changed attitudes toward sex. That nice people can live together now. That I decontaminated the notion of premarital sex. That gives me great satisfaction.” Ms. Magazine acolytes may have despised Mr. Hefner, but they similarly elevated those very goals. I think it unarguable that Gloria Steinem is a talented and hard-working woman who has had an outsized effect on popular culture. She chose where to apply her influence.
Daphne Jackson, about two and a half years younger than Ms. Steinem, became the first female physics professor in the United Kingdom. She wanted to encourage other women to advance in science and engineering careers while being married and having a family. Realizing that women often took breaks for family reasons and needed retraining to get back into the field at a high level, in 1985 she began a fellowship supporting those women as they re-entered the workplace.
Today, unfortunately, there are still women who, at the same time as they righteously demand respect, treat their looks and figures as their greatest commodity. Both Hugh Hefner and Gloria Steinem supported the sexual revolution that gave that market an aura of respectability. There are also women devoting themselves to advancing science and engineering. Gloria Steinem’s work enlarged both those groups while Judith Jackson only supported the second.
Two intelligent women, both of whom felt that women should and could contribute their abilities to society to a greater degree than they were. Had Ms. Steinem joined Professor Jackson in enabling women to expand their academic and business opportunities without at the same time popularizing a sexual revolution, Hugh Hefner’s obituaries might be obscure side notes of history.