"People will say, 'Oh well, she was just a Playboy bunny,'" says the 85-year-old activist

By Sam Gillette
October 23, 2019 08:45 AM
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Credit: Mick Hutson/Chime For Change/Getty

Gloria Steinem has long been the face of the feminist movement, but the 85-year-old activist and writer still gets criticized for her stint as an undercover bunny at the New York Playboy Club in 1963.

“To this day, as old as I am, especially when there’s an urge to be diminishing in some way, people will say, ‘Oh well, she was just a Playboy bunny,’ ” says Steinem.

She explains that these critics seem to have forgotten — or want to belittle her by overlooking — the fact that she was there doing a magazine exposé, not as a regular employee.

In a wide-ranging interview with PEOPLE, Steinem — whose eighth book, The Truth Will Set You Free, But First It Will Piss You Off!, will publish on Oct. 29 — reflects back on her illustrious career fighting for women’s rights. From co-founding Ms. magazine and marching on the Capitol since the ’70s, to her marriage to David Bale (actor Christian Bale’s dad) and retirement plans (none!), she’s as candid as ever. And though Steinem has regrets, her time as bunny isn’t one of them.

The writer went undercover in the ’60s for about a month. Afterwards, she wrote an exposé, “A Bunny’s Tale,” for Show Magazine about her experiences.

“I finally just decided I had enough notes and so on. But you also have a relationship with the women you’re working with,” says Steinem, who explains that the working conditions were deplorable. “And they had mostly sad stories.”

While the young activist managed to stay out of harm’s way during her work as a bunny, Steinem still had to “keep out of pinch distance” from the clientele, she says. And when the story was published other Playboy bunnies called to “warn” her.

“They couldn’t believe that I had written this exposé because they thought it was dangerous,” she says. “And my name was in the phone book.”

For the full interview, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on stands Friday.

Steinem explains that the first women to call her were from the Playboy Club in Florida. “They had tried to organize a union and been threatened with having acid thrown in their faces,” she recalls.

Despite these threats, and the ongoing criticism she’s received since wearing the iconic bunny outfit, Steinem would do it again.

“I’m not worried that I did this exposé because it actually improved the working conditions, which were unspeakable,” she says.

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Steinem also opened up about another colorful period in her life: her first marriage at the age of 66. Steinem married South African-born David Bale, whom she loved dearly, so he could get a green card.

“He was having a very hard time with his citizenship and he was sure that [someone] was going to arrive at his door and pluck him out of his life at any moment,” she says.

Steinem started to think of marriage as the solution.

“I thought, ‘Well, we worked 30 years to change the marriage laws,’ ” the author says. “‘I wouldn’t lose my name, my credit rating, my legal domicile, all the things I would’ve lost before we worked to change the marriage laws.'”

David Bale and Gloria Steinem
| Credit: Kevin Winter/Getty

They married in 2000. Three years later, Bale passed away.

“We loved each other and would have been together anyway, immigration or no,” Steinem explains.

Despite their great love for each other, Steinem balks at the idea that Bale was the love of her life.

“We loved each other, but he had had a wife and children,” Steinem says. “He had had other loves in his life. I had other loves in my life.”

“We are complicated people,” she continues. “Everybody is a complicated person. Somebody matters to you and continues to matter to you, but it doesn’t mean that’s the only person.”