gloria steinem, the undercover playboy bunny

Once upon a time, if you were hunting for a job, this is what you’d find:

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The State, June 1958

This Help Wanted section in The State is from 1958, when job ads were divided into Female Help and Male Help. The best job a college-educated woman could find was a secretary, bookkeeper, teacher, or nurse. The purpose of college for women, after all, was to find a future husband and glistening engagement ring before graduation. The diploma just looked good.

Five years later, a twenty-eight year old journalist named Gloria Steinem was working desperately to find serious assignments, but instead was given stories about stockings and “how to please your husband.” Gloria was unimpressed.

One day, Gloria came across a Help Wanted ad for a Playboy Bunny at the New York Playboy Club. The ad promised $200-$300 a week (a pretty large income for a woman during the 1960s), and asked if job-seekers wanted to “enjoy the glamorous and exciting aura of show business, and have the opportunity to travel to other Playboy Clubs around the world.”

Gloria was skeptical, but she had an idea. She decided to go undercover as a Bunny and investigate the working conditions of these women.

She applied under the name Marie Catherine Ochs, which she wrote sounded “much too square to be phony.” Marie Ochs was a bit flighty, having held several stints as she traveled around Europe, and she was twenty-four years old. The age range posted in the advertisement was 21-24, so Marie needed to be younger than Gloria.

Marie’s interview at the Playboy Club was not so much an interview as a Bunny costume fitting:

 The bottom was cut up so high that it left my hip bones exposed as well as a good five inches of my derriere. The boning of the waist would have made Scarlett O’Hara blanch, and the entire construction tended to push all of my available flesh up to the bosom. “Not too bad,” said the wardrobe mistress and began to stuff an entire plastic dry cleaning bag into the top of my costume.

The heels of the costume proved to be the worst part, though; after standing for eight hours in three-inch heels, her feet were throbbing in pain. In 1995, Gloria wrote that her feet were so damaged that they were enlarged half a shoe size and have remained that way ever since.

Marie Ochs in the promotional photo as a Bunny, taken by the Playboy Club. Playboy still uses this photo in promotional materials today.

Marie Ochs in the promotional photo as a Bunny, taken by the Playboy Club. Playboy still uses this photo in promotional materials today.

Another perk to the job: oh, the ogling. Men harassed the Bunnies often verbally and sometimes physically. Of course, the Bunnies were there purely for the enjoyment of ye old Male Gaze, but they were not allowed to be touched by men nor to go out with any customers (unless they were a Number One Keyholder).  Bunnies were mere decoration. They might as well be hanging in the walls of a museum.

Marie Ochs’ first night on the job was in the coat-check room, and as it happened, she came face-to-face with two friends of Gloria Steinem. The TV executive and his wife looked directly at Gloria/Marie, handed her fifty cents, but did not recognize her. “It was depressing to be a nonperson in a Bunny suit,” she wrote, and recorded several other observations from her night:

 The least confident wives of the businessmen didn’t measure themselves against us, but seemed to assume their husbands would be attracted to us, and stood aside, looking timid and embarrassed. There were a few customers, a very few, either men or women (I counted ten) who looked at us not as objects but smiled and nodded as if we might be human beings.

Back in those days, there was no concept of sexual harassment in the workplace. If there was, though, “Daily sexual harassment from washed up middle-aged businessmen!” should have been part of the Help Wanted ad. But Gloria/Marie was also curious about another part of the ad, a figure that had been cited in several newspaper articles too. Do Bunnies make $200-$300 a week?

So far Marie Ochs had earned close to nothing. Most of her work counted under “training,” which was unpaid. So, she went digging for answers from other Bunnies.

“Two hundred to three hundred a what?” asked one Bunny in disbelief.  She was a waitress, and waitresses generally made the most money because of tips (although the Playboy Club took 50 percent of tips as part of their own earnings). “I got a hundred and eight dollars this week, and the girl with the biggest check got a hundred and forty five.”

Gloria/Marie also learned that although the Playboy Club boasted a roster of 150 Bunnies, only 103 were on schedule because nearly 50 of them had quit. Girls signed up for the promise of glamor and then became jaded. When Marie Ochs finally did find a Bunny who earned $200, the lower end of the promised salary, it was only because she took double shifts and worked around the clock.

Marie Ochs existed for a month, and then Gloria Steinem took over and published her exposé called “A Bunny’s Tale” in Show magazine. It was a bold move, as His Holiness Hugh Hefner was in the glory days of his Bunny Empire. Hefner somehow found the gall to claim that his work was the “Emancipation Proclamation of the sexual revolution”; Gloria’s account told quite another story.

The short-term consequences of the article were frightening.  For several weeks, Gloria received “obscene and threatening phone calls from a man with great internal knowledge of the Playboy Club”—and, instead of accomplishing her intended goal of becoming a respected journalist, Gloria had even more trouble finding work “because I had now become a Bunny—and it didn’t matter why.”

Good thing, then, that the story doesn’t end here. Ten years later, Gloria Steinem would become the face of second-wave feminism and the Women’s Liberation Movement. She founded her own magazine, Ms., that covered serious articles about women’s rights when other publications still thought feminism to be the silly ramblings of a few radical women. Gloria continues to write and work as a feminist activist today. As Gloria said, “The truth will set you free, but at first it will piss you off.”

D358GloriaSteinemWSPLunchTo read the entirely of “A Bunny’s Tale,” which is a great first-person journalistic account, click here.

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