Chicago City Council Honors Hefner
but feminists ruined the show
by Claudine O’ Leary

Chicago politics are notorious for back room deals, and one of the political favors a City Council member can offer to a constituent is an honorary street sign. These signs dot the city streets--for example, there is Indira Gandhi Way and Frank Sinatra Way. No one had ever disputed the designation of such a sign before. So perhaps local politicians truly believed an honorary street sign for Playboy founder Hugh Hefner would swiftly and smoothly pass through the Chicago City Council.

Hugh Hefner Way would be on the northeast corner of Walton and Michigan Avenues, the location of the original Playboy Club. There remained only one detail: the measure hadn't been voted on. Yet so confident were Hefner’s supporters of its passage, the sign was already made, and the ceremony planned, before anyone else found out about the upcoming vote.

On Sunday, April 9, just before the resolution was to come up for a committee vote, a few of us did manage to find out about it. With only 24 hours to prepare, two groups--Advocates for Prostituted Women and Girls and Chicago NOW--along with a handful of individual feminists, immediately began to alert the public. We contacted city council members and media representatives. We expressed our distress and outrage at the idea that the man who had popularized the idea of women as "bunnies"--groomed to fit one body image, to serve men with a smile and bunny ears, and to be always accessible for men's sexual demands--would be honored by the city in this way.

Members of the council’s Transportation and Public Way Committee were in for a surprise when they returned to their offices on Monday, April 10. Emails, phone calls, and faxes were pouring in, not only from city residents but from all over the country (thanks to the Internet), urging them to oppose the street naming. As it turned out, most committee members themselves had been unaware of the measure, buried among fifty other items on the day's agenda. All committee members received faxes detailing research into the harm of Playboy. But even those who were sympathetic to our concerns remained pessimistic: no one opposes much in this town unless Mayor Richard Daley, Jr. wills it.

True to expectation, the measure at first passed with no discussion. But when three city residents, including an attorney and a women's rights advocate, spoke up from the background wanting an opportunity to say at least something, a short discussion ensued and the vote was retaken. This time, the measure was defeated.

Alderman Burton Natarus, who brought the measure to the committee, was furious. No sign had ever been turned down before. Of course, his frantic behavior was understandable considering he had already promised Hugh Hefner and Playboy Enterprises the honor. Not only that: a lavish party with celebrities was already planned for that night to celebrate the honor, and Hugh Hefner himself had come to town to receive the honor the very next day.

The upset made all the news channels. Alderwoman Carrie Austin, who led the opposition in the Committee, insisted, "There's no reason we should be honoring a man who has made his money off the backs of women." Alderman Natarus, on the other hand, complained about how he "let all the black people in town name streets after their black Muslim leaders," so he should get this street sign without any problems.

On the news that same night, Natarus revealed he had found another alderman to introduce the measure into the Finance Committee meeting the next morning. Natarus merely changed the location of the sign from the northeast corner to the northwest corner of the street so that he could get away with reintroducing the already defeated resolution.

Minutes before the already scheduled street-naming ceremony, Christie Hefner, CEO of Playboy Enterprises and devoted daughter of Hugh, made a hastily arranged presentation before the Finance Committee. Christie Hefner emphasized the financial contributions her father made to the city and his efforts at protecting "free speech."

Women's rights advocates reminded the council members of the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), originally convened by the United Nations and passed by the Council last fall. The Convention clearly calls upon signatory governments to eliminate "prejudices, customary, and all other practices, which are based on the idea of inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes, or on stereotyped roles for men and women."

The Committee meeting lasted longer than anticipated. Hefner’s supporters waited for news of the vote at the site where the scheduled street-naming ceremony was to take place. Protesters from APWG, in the meantime, were working in full gear, despite the freezing cold, handing out fliers and talking with press people and passersby’s. After waiting for more than an hour, Hefner’s supporters postponed the unveiling.

An hour later, however, the committee passed the measure. A quick 10 minute unveiling took place, complete with photo opportunity of Hef and the 21-year old twin sisters who appear in incestuous scenes in the May issue of Playboy. Fortunately, the event was overshadowed by the opposition, who had managed to bring to center stage the issues of pornography and profiting from sexual exploitation and abuse. And though the committee passed the measure, it still had to pass the full City Council, which continued to receive a deluge of messages opposing it, before the naming was official.

The next day the whole City Council voted on the measure, with 20 out of 50 members opposed. These are amazing numbers, considering most votes in the Chicago City Council are 49 to 1--with the lone vote coming from a progressive holdout who consistently opposes Mayor Daley's plans to sell this town to the highest bidder. Surprise, surprise, soon after the measure passed, the Mayor publicly came out in support of the sign, calling himself a close friend of Christie Hefner's.

Many council members were angry about the political maneuvering, particularly by Alderman Natarus, who flouted rules of order to get the measure passed. A few of the council members remained committed to opposing the measure on principle, after being educated on the issue.

But for now, the sign is up, set one foot higher than others after a couple of male pranksters tried to steal it.

Feminists are making plans to continue community education about the harm of magazines like Playboy, and to call for the removal of the honorary sign. But residents of Chicago and from across the country have already made a positive difference. The letters to editors, the conversations with city residents and tourists on the street, and the number of calls to council members helped raise consciousness and demonstrated the widespread opposition to the honorary street sign for Hefner.

As 8th grader Maricolleen McNally wrote to the Chicago Tribune, "I think he is an immature man who has made sex out to be something it is not by publishing a magazine such as Playboy, in which women pose and are photographed for public display for the younger generation of ignorant boys. He hasn't done anything to deserve such an honor."



Claudine O’ Leary is committed feminist activist and the founder and Project Coordinator of Advocates for Prostituted Women and Girls, a Chicago-based empowerment project for teen girls and young women who are trading sex for money, gifts, drugs, or survival. We can be reached at
apwg@juno.com.




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