Penny Gardner, MSU Writing, Rhetoric and American Studies professor, former Playboy Bunny, now feminist and activist said she is flying to the finish line instead of walking.
Gardner was living in Baltimore, Maryland when she had her third kid at the age of 18. She had nowhere else to turn.
“I was divorced with three kids and I was getting no support from the kids’ father,” Gardner said.
Gardner went to her father-in-law’s office to ask if he would pay child support, but he turned her down in hopes of her going back to his son.
Gardner said while she was waiting she spoke to a woman about nighttime jobs and the woman suggested the gaslight club next door.
“The gaslight club was an upscale of the Playboy Club,” Gardner said. “It was a private club for men. It was based on advertising and marketing and it was based on Gay Nineties. We wore revealing clothes and we had feathers and we waited on people, very fancy club.”
In 1962, a Playboy Club opened in Baltimore.
“We had two weeks of training to be a Playboy Bunny,” Gardner said. “We were trained to be accessories to the club. Throughout the club, there were ‘Bunny Perches’ and we were taught how to perch, we were taught how to bend over the table, we were taught exactly what to say.”
Gardner said she loved the work at the gaslight club, but the Playboy Club had a bigger membership.
“What I didn’t know was how depersonalizing it was and I only came to know that after, from feminism and critical thinking,” Gardner said.
Gardner said she is grateful for the gaslight club and the Playboy Club for allowing her to take care of her children.
“I am grateful for that, and I’m also glad there is no more Playboy Club,” Gardner said. “There is Hooters and other things that are exactly the same, but I don’t know that it was as rigid as the Playboy Club.”
Coming out of an abusive relationship of two-and-a-half years, she began to date, which was against the rules of the gaslight club.
“I got pregnant and one of the men that I was dating and having sex with was married,” Gardner said. “He, of course, wanted me to have the abortion and I did, too.”
Gardner said both illegal abortions that she had were because of the privilege the men had.
“He found me a doctor in Memphis, Tenn.,” Gardner said. “He put me on a plane, had a car pick me up and the car took me to a doctor way out in the country. The doctor didn’t say a word, he performed the abortion, I got back on the plane and went to work.”
Gardner does not look at the doctors who performed these illegal abortions in a dark light.
“What I do know is that doctor and another doctor were doing something illegal and that they were caring about women’s lives,” Gardner said. “I honor those doctors all the time.”
Gardner decided to go back to school in January of 1994.
“I lived in Miami, Fla.,” Gardner said. “I happened to meet the director of Women’s Studies of MSU. I really wanted to go to graduate school and she told me to come to MSU. She made it happen. She had a mission, an old person coming back to school is very feminist.”
Currently, Gardner is a feminist and an activist.
“Feminism is having a sense of the oppression of women and other kinds of ‘isms’ and being willing to notice it whether you fight against it or not,” Gardner said. “If you happen to be an activist, which I am, it’s about being informed. Feminism is about empowering ourselves and empowering other women.”
Gardner said she stumbled upon feminism.
“I got asked to be a volunteer for this new program for women and I didn’t know how to say no. A weekly event (that) was feminist came from Baltimore’s women’s liberation movement,” Gardner said.
Gardner is active in the Lansing Area concerning LGBT groups. Gardner is the president of a LGBT organization in Lansing, president of the Union of Non-Tenured Faculty and president of Lesbian Connection.
“We are a group of 88 lesbians who own seats for women’s basketball and we want to make our presence known,” Gardner said.
Gardner didn’t think of herself as a lesbian until the late 80’s.
“My life began to be more woman-centered,” Gardner said. “What I found in this woman-centered life was that I was strong, I was capable, I was more of who I was. How I was as a feminist became more important.”
Gardner said feminism has completely changed her life.
“I was a woman who got pregnant at 18 who was totally submissive in so many ways who made money off of being a sex object who was able to come to school and have a sense of my own privilege that I would have never had,” Gardner said. “I have been partnered for 18 years. I have this wonderful life. I am flying.”
Gardner is president of the Union of Nontenure-Track Faculty, Lansing Association for Human Rights, Elsie Publishing and Lesbian Connection. She holds leadership positions in the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the Women’s Political Caucus.