W. Joseph Campbell

Bra-burning revisited, in error

In Bra-burning, Debunking, Media myths on December 22, 2009 at 2:37 pm

The enduring myths of bra-burning — a topic explored in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong — were invoked not only ago in a column posted at the Syndey Morning Herald‘s online site.

The passage was brief, but stunning in the ways in which it was in error.

The Morning Herald column was about the National Organization of Women and its opposition to a proposed tax on Botox. But here’s the passage about bra-burning, which refers to a demonstration in Atlantic City in September 1968 that targeted the Miss America Pageant:

“The most famous NOW action — burning a trash can full of bras and girdles outside a Miss America beauty pageant – became the stuff of folklore, and made ‘bra-burning’ a universal symbol of women’s liberation. As a symbol it’s perhaps been over-hyped, but at least it grabbed attention and made a point.”

Where to begin?

The protest on the boardwalk at Atlantic City had little to do with NOW. It was organized by a small group called New York Radical Women, a leader of which was the writer and former child actor, Robin Morgan.

At the Freedom Trash Can, 1968 (Duke University, special collections)

A highlight of the protest came when Morgan and other demonstrators (described by the New York Times as “mostly middle-aged careerists and housewives”) tossed into a barrel what they called “instruments of torture,” which included brassieres, girdles, high-heeled shoes, and magazines such as Playboy and Cosmopolitan. The protesters dubbed the barrel the Freedom Trash Can.

Morgan and others have long insisted that the bras and other contents of the Freedom Trash Can were not set afire during the protest that day.

Moreover, “bra-burning” scarcely was “a universal symbol of women’s liberation.” Far from it: Feminists like Morgan abhorred the term. They never embraced “bra-burning” as anything remotely approaching a symbol or metaphor.

But “bra-burning” did become a media-driven myth.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, the term was often invoked “to denigrate women’s liberation and feminist advocacy as trivial and even a bit primitive.”

The notion that bras were demonstratively and flamboyantly set afire at the Atlantic City protest was driven by syndicated newspaper columnists such as Harriett Van Horne.

“My feeling about the liberation ladies,” Van Horne wrote soon after the protest at Atlantic City, “is that they’ve been scarred by consorting with the wrong men. Men who do not understand the way to a woman’s heart, i.e., to make her feel utterly feminine, desirable and almost too delicate for this hard world. … No wonder she goes to Atlantic City and burns her bra.”

The author of the Sydney Morning Herald column, by the way, was Virginia Haussegger, whose Web site identifies her as “a journalist, author and commentator whose extensive media career spans more than 20 years.” She is further identified as “the face” of Australian Broadcasting Corp. TV News in Canberra.

Haussegger is the author of Wonder Woman: The Myth of Having It All, a 2005 memoir that takes feminism to task. Read the first chapter here.



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