W. Joseph Campbell

Bra-burning and home luxuries lost: Whoa

In Bra-burning, Debunking, Media myths, New York Times on May 23, 2010 at 11:40 am

If I read this article correctly, bra-burning contributed to a decline in the late 20th century of a taste for small luxuries around the home.

Media-driven myths have been mistakenly credited with bringing on wars and bringing down presidents. But bringing about a decline in household luxuries?

This is a first.

The article recalls with praise Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, which came out in 1861 and offered hundreds of pointers on cooking, supervising servants, and choosing decor.

Says the article, which appeared the other day in the Seattle Times and elsewhere:

“The dang thing had 2,751 entries—from how to cut a side of lamb, to just when to put away the white summer curtains—spelled out across more than 1,680 pages. And back in 1861, millions of copies were sold. Millions.

“Then,” the article says, “came the bra-burning latter half of the 20th century, and along with it permanent-press sheets, the paper napkin, and Hamburger Helper served up on melamine plates.

“We say, Whoa. We might have ditched too much. Lost all hints of luxury in the household department.”

I say, Whoa.

What did bra-burning supposedly have to do with lost “hints of luxury” at home? The article doesn’t say. Nor does it say explain how bra-burning helped to define the “latter half of the 20th century.”

Bra-burning in fact was a dramatically overstated phenomenon, as I discuss in a chapter in Getting It Wrong, my forthcoming book about media-driven myths–well-known and often-told stories about the news media that are dubious, apocryphal, or wildly exaggerated.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, the notion of bra-burning took hold in the days after the Miss America pageant at Atlantic City, N.J., on September 7, 1968, and was promoted, probably unwittingly, by two syndicated columnists.

On that September afternoon, “about 100 women from New York City, New Jersey, Boston, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere arrived by bus at the Atlantic City boardwalk,” I write, adding:

“They were, according to the New York Times, ‘mostly middle-aged careerists and housewives’ and they set up a picket line … across from the Convention Center. They were there, as one participant declared, ‘to protest the degrading image of women perpetuated by the Miss America pageant,’ which took place that night inside the Convention Center.”

A highlight of their protest came when the demonstrators tossed into a barrel what they termed “instruments of torture,” including brassieres, girdles, high-heeled shoes, and magazines such as Playboy and Cosmopolitan.

The protesters dubbed the barrel the Freedom Trash Can.

The organizers of the daylong protest, who included the activist and former child actor Robin Morgan, have long insisted that bras and other contents of the Freedom Trash Can were not set afire during the protest.

But the notion that bra-burning was a dramatic element of the demonstration at Atlantic City was encouraged by syndicated columnists, including Harriett Van Horne.

Soon after the protest, Van Horne wrote that the demonstrators surely were frustrated– “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.”

Van Horne was not at the protest, however. Nor was Art Buchwald, then American journalism’s leading humorist, who nonetheless played on the bra-burning trope in a column published in the Washington Post and other newspapers.

With tongue firmly in cheek, Buchwald wrote that he had been “flabbergasted to read that about 100 women had picketed the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City against ‘ludicrous beauty standards that had enslaved the American woman.’”

He added: “The final and most tragic part of the protest took place when several of the women publicly burned their brassieres.”

As I note in Getting It Wrong, Buchwald’s slyly humorous “characterization of the protest at Atlantic City introduced the notion of flamboyant bra-burning to a national audience, conjuring as it did a powerful mental image of angry women setting fire to bras and twirling them, defiantly, for all … to see.”

But the dramatic burning of bras as a form of feminist protest wasn’t a defining feature of the second half of the 20th century. More than anything, it was an effect of a humor columnist’s satiric riff.


  1. […] yet the epithet “bra-burning” took hold, serving to denigrate and trivialize the objectives of the women’s liberation […]

  2. […] yet the epithet “bra-burning” took hold, serving to denigrate and trivialize the objectives of the women’s liberation […]

  3. […] Bra-burning and home luxuries lost: Whoa […]

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