The Last Word: Gloria Steinem on Exposing the Playboy Club and What ‘Mrs. America’ Got Wrong
Gloria Steinem stormed the popular consciousness in 1963, the year her undercover exposé documenting the humiliations that cocktail waitresses at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club were forced to endure to get (and keep) a job was published in Show magazine. Some, like her New Journalism contemporary Gay Talese, thought she was a passing fad — “This year’s pretty girl in journalism,” to use his precise phrasing. But more than half a century later, Steinem is still here, and more relevant than ever.
In the spring, she served as the inspiration for the star-studded FX series Mrs. America, about the multi-decade fight to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. (Steinem, for what it’s worth, was not a fan of show, which she’s said portrays the policy battle as “a catfight”; she maintains that the opposition to the ERA, then and now, is motivated by corporate greed.) In the fall, she was celebrated in The Glorias, Julie Taymor’s feature film adaptation of Steinem’s memoir, chronicling her years as an investigative journalist, founder of Ms. magazine, spokeswoman for the National Women’s Political Caucus, and the driving force behind the ERA.
Steinem spoke to Rolling Stone by phone from Santa Barbara, where she’s been beaming into Zoom happy hours throughout the pandemic while working on her next book.
You grew up as the daughter of a traveling salesman and spent the majority of your adult life on the road, engaged in activism. Has COVID grounded you?
Writers are always quite used to sitting in our chair, typing, so it doesn’t feel that unusual. It’s probably more unusual for people who are accustomed to going to the office every day. I haven’t missed being on the road yet. But seeing my friends, and walking the New York streets? I do miss that. We’re all living in Zoom City now, right? I do at least three or four long Zooms a week.
One of Ms. magazine’s most famous issues featured the names of women who had abortions. How would your life be different if you hadn’t had access to abortion at age 22 in 1957?
It’s very hard to imagine. Before I found a physician of conscience — who was willing to break the law — I was imagining doing violence on myself. Not lethal, but throwing myself down stairs, riding a horse and falling — you know, the crazy things you think of. I’m sure I could have hurt myself.
In 1963, Show magazine published your undercover exposé on the working conditions at the Playboy Club. Did you speak to any of your former co-workers afterward?
Yes, they called and they couldn’t believe that I wrote it. They were worried about my safety — they were telling me a woman in Florida got beaten up because she complained about working conditions.
Did you receive threats?
I did, yeah. But I didn’t believe it was real. It wasn’t as if I was really scared by it. I just thought it was the club trying to scare me.
Gay Talese once refered to you as “this year’s pretty girl” in journalism. What do you wish you had said to him in that moment?
I should have gotten out of the car and slammed the door. Years and years later, I saw him at a dinner and told him this was going to be public, and he said, “Yes, I said that” — and I respected him for not denying it.
Did he apologize?
No. But he didn’t get mad, and he didn’t deny it.
Before you were a full-time journalist, you served as director of a CIA front organization called the Independent Research Service. Are there lessons you learned working with the CIA that you carried into political organizing?
I don’t think so. There were a few old liberals inside the CIA who thought it was important to go to communist youth festivals, and they were encouraging that. The ones I went to were in Vienna and Helsinki. They were totally run by the then–Soviet Union, so there was no such thing as free dialogue. But, on the other hand, lots of people came from around the world, and we met each other, so regardless of how machine-made the festivals were, it was worthwhile to meet each other.
In 1972, you were elected spokesperson for the National Women’s Political Caucus, practically against your will — why didn’t you want the job? Because I hate to speak in public. We choose to be writers because we don’t want to talk. It wasn’t my idea of fun.
Are you glad you ended up doing it?
No. I wish somebody else had done it. I would have had a much better time if I hadn’t.
How did you conquer your fear of public speaking?
I never did, completely. I just learned that you don’t die. But I still have to deal with losing all my saliva. Does that happen to you? I think it’s a common form of nervousness. I have all forms of cough drops and things to keep handy to drink. There’s a kind of toothpaste that is supposed to help — I’m not sure if it does.
You’ve objected to the TV show Mrs. America’s portrayal of the battle to pass an amendment guaranteeing women equal rights under the Constitution as “a catfight” — what do you think the show got wrong?
The showrunners came to see me and Ellie Smeal [the former president of NOW] and we told them that the opposition to the ERA was not from other women — the huge majority of women supported the Equal Rights Amendment. Ellie Smeal was in every state working on it, and she could never determine that one single vote was ever changed by Phyllis Schlafly. Women don’t have the power to be our own worst adversaries. It’s economic interests that do.
If you were starting the fight over the ERA over today —
We are starting over today.
… Is there anything you would have done differently?
We thought, how hard can it be? It’s perfectly clear that women should be [recognized as] equal [in] the Constitution. We didn’t understand what the opposition would be, so we didn’t start soon enough or organize state by state enough.
“Women don’t have the power to be our own worst adversaries. It’s economic interests that do.”
Is the ERA still necessary today?
There are some who would argue we’ve achieved its goals through other means. Yes, absolutely. To have to proceed every time, law by law, issue by issue [is impractical] — we need justice. We have the 14th Amendment for racial equality. We need to have equality by sex.
You used to quote Irina Dunn saying “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” Do you still believe that, or did your understanding of your needs change when you got married?
No, no. That was always a joke. No. People need people — regardless of gender. Everybody needs people.
Who were the most important female role models for you growing up?
The [fictional] women in Little Women, I loved. Remember, the time in which I was growing up, the Forties and Fifties, I didn’t see that many independent women, actually — they were mostly in literature.
Are you an Amy, Beth, Jo, or Meg?
Oh, definitely a Jo — we were probably all Jo, right? Because, of course, she was the author.
What music moves you the most?
I was just dancing to Lou Rawls. The crossover from social dancing to disco dancing — that was great. Because in disco dancing you don’t have to follow. Before, if you were heterosexual dancing, you were following your male lead, right? Suddenly you could go to a disco place, and just get out there and dance. A total revolution.
When you look back at your life and career, what was your biggest mistake?
Mostly it’s wasting time. Putting off writing, not doing what I care about. Some of it I don’t regret, because it was fundraising for things I cared about, or helping friends I cared about. But some of it was just a sheer waste of time.
If you knew in the 1960s what women’s rights would look like in 2020, would you be excited or disappointed?
About how far we have come in terms of economics and legislation — I would have thought we’d be much further by now. But the movement itself, in terms of what little girls think they can do, and the diversity of the movement and the global nature of the movement [is exciting].
You’ve said your funeral “will be a fundraiser.” What do want the cause to be?
The movement for equality — no more labels by sex and race. Whatever form that takes.
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