W. Joseph Campbell

The wide appeal of the bra-burning meme

In Bra-burning, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers on August 10, 2010 at 11:34 am

I’ve written from time to time about the striking international appeal of media-driven myths, those dubious and improbable tales about the news media that masquerade as factual.

The Times newspaper in South Africa  underscored that appeal the other day in an interesting and amusing commentary titled, “From A to double D: a history of the bra.”

The commentary included a reference to bra-burning, stating:

At the 'Freedom Trash Can,' 1968

“One of the abiding symbols of the feminist movement is the burning of the bra. As a representation of liberation from the oppression of patriarchy, the alleged incineration of the intimate was meant to signify the death of male domination over women’s self-image. …

“In any case, most sources say the bra-burning never really happened.”

My research indicates otherwise, however.

As the commentary noted–and as I discuss in my new book about media-driven myths, Getting It Wrong–the bra-burning trope stems from the women’s liberation protest of the 1968 Miss America Pageant at Atlantic City.

As I write in Getting It Wrong:

“The demonstrators denounced the pageant as a ‘degrading Mindless-Boob-Girlie symbol’ that placed ‘women on a pedestal/auction block to compete for male approval,’ and promoted a ‘Madonna Whore image of womanhood.'”

They carried placards declaring: “Up Against the Wall, Miss America,” “Miss America Sells It,” and “Miss America Is a Big Falsie.”A centerpiece of the protest was a burn barrel, which the demonstrators dubbed the “Freedom Trash Can.” Into the “Freedom Trash Can” they tossed items and articles they said repressed and demeaned women–bras, girdles, high-heels, as well as copies of Cosmopolitan and Playboy magazines.

The protest’s organizers have long insisted that nothing was set ablaze that day at Atlantic City. The lead organizer, Robin Morgan, has asserted, for example:

“There were no bras burned. That’s a media myth.”

But in researching Getting It Wrong, I found a long-overlooked, contemporaneous account in the Press of Atlantic City that said “bras, girdles, falsies, curlers, and copies of popular women’s magazines burned in the ‘Freedom Trash Can.’”

The Press article was published September 8, 1968, a day after the protest, and appeared beneath the headline:

“Bra-burners blitz boardwalk.”

Its author, a veteran newspaperman named John Boucher, died in 1973.

As I note in Getting It Wrong, Boucher’s article “did not elaborate about the fire and the articles burning in the Freedom Trash Can, nor did it suggest the fire was all that important. Rather, the article conveyed a sense of astonishment that an event such as the women’s liberation protest could take place near the venue of the pageant.”

Separately, I tracked down and interviewed Jon Katz, who also had covered the Miss America protest for the Press.

Katz said in interviews with me that he recalled that bras and other items were set afire during the demonstration and that they burned briefly.

“I quite clearly remember the ‘Freedom Trash Can,’ and also remember some protestors putting their bras into it along with other articles of clothing, and some Pageant brochures, and setting the can on fire. I am quite certain of this,” Katz said.

The contemporaneous Press article and Katz’s recollections represent, I write, “evidence that bras and other items were set afire, if briefly, at the 1968 Miss America protest in Atlantic City.”

At very least, the accounts offer fresh dimension to the widely appealing legend of bra-burning.



<!–[if !mso]> They carried placards declaring: “Up Against the Wall, Miss America,” “Miss America Sells It,” “Miss America Is a Big Falsie,”[i] and “Miss America Goes Down.”

[i] Cited in Alice Echols, Daring to be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967–1975 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), 96.

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