The actual story of Hefner’s success is less sanguine, since Playboy’s initial popularity was based on its embrace of 1940s and ’50s sexist ideas. One of the bestselling books of this era was Philip Wylie’s Generation of Vipers, which accused women of rampant materialism and selfishness. Calling women dumb, greedy, rapacious and “an idle class,” Wylie developed the concept of “momism,” which held that American wives and mothers had gained too much power over their husbands and it was about time men fought back.
Picking up on these themes, the main article in the first issue of Playboy was called “Miss Gold-Digger of 1953.” Bemoaning the good old days when alimony was reserved for “little floozies,” the Playboy editors wrote, “When a modern day marriage ends, it doesn’t matter who’s to blame–it’s always the guy who pays and pays and pays.” This was a theme that was expressed again and again in the early years of Playboy by writers such as Burt Zollo and, of course, Philip Wylie.
As the women’s movement began to gain traction, Playboy editors realized that they needed to reinvent themselves as supporters of women’s rights, or risk being seen as a relic of a bygone era. They got off to a bumpy start when a memo by Hefner was leaked by a female secretary in 1970 that read, “What I’m interested in is the highly irrational, emotional, kookie [sic] trend that feminism has taken…these chicks are our natural enemy. It is time to do battle with them.” But over the years, Hefner has, with the help of the mainstream media, carefully crafted an image of himself as a champion of women’s sexual and economic freedom.