W. Joseph Campbell

‘Doctrinaire feminist in the bra-burning mold’?

In Bra-burning, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers on January 21, 2011 at 10:15 am

The latest number of the Nation includes lengthy essay about Elizabeth Hardwick, a writer, critic, intellectual, and co-founder of the New York Review of Books who died in 2007.

At the 'Freedom Trash Can'

The essay caught the attention of Media Myth Alert because of a passage that declared Hardwick “was never a doctrinaire feminist in the bra-burning mold…”

But what is “a doctrinaire feminist in the bra-burning mold,” anyway? The Nation essay doesn’t say.

In fact, there was no such “mold.” Bra-burning was a misnomer, inaccurately though relentlessly attached to feminists and the “women’s liberation” movement of the late 1960s and 1970s.

What I call the “nuanced myth” of bra-burning is explored in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, which addresses and debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths–those dubious stories about the news media that masquerade as factual.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, the popular notion of demonstrative bra-burnings — that feminists in the late 1960s and 1970s set bras afire in flamboyant public protests — “is fanciful and highly exaggerated.”

Ritual, frequent, flamboyant bra-burnings — there were none in those days.

At most, women’s liberation demonstrators at Atlantic City in early September 1968 (see photo above), briefly set bras and other items afire, an episode that may best be described as “bra-smoldering.”

The Atlantic City protest was the genesis of the media-driven myth of flamboyant bra-burning, though.

The demonstrators, who numbered 100 or so, gathered on the boardwalk to protest the Miss America pageant, which was taking place at the Atlantic City convention center.

They 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.” The demonstrators carried placards bearing such aggressive slogans as:

“Up Against the Wall, Miss America,” “Miss America Sells It,” “Miss America Is a Big Falsie.”

I note in Getting It Wrong that a centerpiece of the protest that day was a burn barrel that the demonstrators called the “Freedom Trash Can.” Into the barrel they consigned “instruments of torture,” such as brassieres, girdles, high-heeled shoes, false eyelashes, copies of magazines such as Playboy and Cosmopolitan.

“In the days before the protest,” I write, “the organizers of the protest had let it be known— or at least had hinted openly — that brassieres and other items would be set afire in the Freedom Trash Can. At least a few news reports in advance of the protest referred to plans for a ‘bra-burning’ at the Atlantic City boardwalk.”

But once in Atlantic City, the protesters supposedly modified their plans, in favor of what their leader, Robin Morgan, termed a “symbolic bra-burning.”

After all, a week before the protest fire had destroyed or damaged fourteen stores in a half-block section of the boardwalk.

“In the years since,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “Morgan and other participants have insisted that bras were not set afire at Atlantic City that day.”

However, in researching Getting It Wrong, I found a long-overlooked article published the day after the 1968 protest in the local Atlantic City newspaper, the Press. The article, written by a veteran reporter named John L. Boucher, stated matter-of-factly:

Boucher, 1949 photo

“As the bras, girdles, falsies, curlers, and copies of popular women’s magazines burned in the ‘Freedom Trash Can,’ the demonstration reached the pinnacle of ridicule when the participants paraded a small lamb wearing a gold banner worded ‘Miss America.’”

I note that Boucher’s report “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. … Nonetheless, the passage stands as a contemporaneous account that there was fire in the Freedom Trash Can that day.”

Another reporter for the Press of Atlantic City, Jon Katz, also was at the women’s liberation protest that long ago September day. In interviews with me, Katz said he recalled that bras and other items were set afire during the demonstration and 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 stated.

He added:

“I recall and remember noting at the time that the fire was small, and quickly was extinguished, and didn’t pose a credible threat to the Boardwalk. I noted this as a reporter in case a fire did erupt …. It is my recollection that this burning was planned, and that a number of demonstrators brought bras and other articles of clothing to burn, including, I believe some underwear.”

So what’s the upshot?

The Boucher article and Katz’s recollections, I write, “offer fresh dimension to the bra-burning legend. … There is now evidence that bras and other items were set afire, if briefly, at the 1968 Miss America protest in Atlantic City. This evidence cannot be taken lightly, dismissed or ignored.”

But I also note that the witness accounts “offer no evidence to corroborate a widely held image of angry feminists demonstratively setting fire to their bras and tossing the flaming undergarments into a spectacular bonfire.”

I note in Getting It Wrong, that the epithet bra-burning “has long been an off-hand way of ridiculing feminists and mocking their sometimes-militant efforts to confront gender-based discrimination in the home and the work place. Characterizations such as ‘bra-burning feminists,’ ‘the bra-burning women’s movement,’ ‘loud-mouthed, bra-burning, men-hating feminists,’ and ‘a 1960s bra-burning feminist’ have had currency for years.”

Add now to that dubious roster “doctrinaire feminist in the bra-burning mold.”


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