W. Joseph Campbell

Meaning what, ‘all the bra-burning’?

In Bra-burning, Debunking, Media myths, Photographs on February 21, 2011 at 8:11 am

Toronto, 1979 (Bettmann/Corbis)

Bra-burning used to commonplace in America, suggested a columnist in yesterday’s Boston Globe.

The column, which deplored the sexualization of American young women, contained this passage:

“American women stood up for their rights 50 years ago. The sexual revolution, too often blamed for what’s wrong with America today, wasn’t only about sexual liberation. It was about equality. We are more than our bodies is what all the bra-burning meant.”

What a minute: “…all the bra-burning”?

Meaning what? There was hardly any bra-burning in America. Ever.

Bra-burning wasn’t, and hasn’t been, a tactic of feminist protests, save for an episode — discussed in my latest book, Getting It Wrong — of what might best be called “bra-smoldering” at Atlantic City, New Jersey, in September 1968.

Getting It Wrong offers evidence that bras were burned, briefly, at a women’s liberation protest of the 1968 Miss America pageant at Atlantic City — but it was no demonstrative display, nothing, I write, akin to the “vivid and popular imagery that many bras went up in flames in flamboyant protest that September day.”

Bra-burning did figure, flamboyantly, at a women’s protest in Toronto in March 1979 (see photo, above).

But as I discussed in a recent post at Media Myth Alert, bra-burning wasn’t a focal point of that demonstration; rather, setting fire to a bra served as a way for media-savvy protesters to call attention to their grievances — specifically, a police report about rape.

Getting It Wrong discusses two other bra-burning episodes.

One was a failed attempted to set fire to a bra at Ohio State in 1999, to protest a cartoon in the student newspaper that poked fun at the university’s women’s studies program.

The other was a bizarre and gratuitous gesture on the Tyra Banks television show in 2008.

“Banks took members of her studio audience into the chill of a winter’s afternoon in New York for a made-for-television stunt about what women could do with ill-fitting brassieres,” I write in Getting It Wrong, adding:

“Banks wore an unzipped gray sweatshirt that revealed a powder-blue sports bra. Most of the other women were clad above the waist only in brassieres. They clutched other bras as they stood before a burn barrel from which flames leapt hungrily. On Banks’ word, the women tossed the bras in their hands into the fire.”

The Boston Globe columnist’s blithe and imprecise reference to bra-burning in a way evokes the role of columnists in the diffusion of the term.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, two columnists had a lot to do with the entry of “bra-burning” into the vernacular.

One was Harriet Van Horne, who wrote, sneeringly, in the New York Post two days after the demonstration at Atlantic City in 1968 that the protesters had screamed in “delight [as] they consigned to the flames such shackling, demeaning items as girdles, bras, high-heeled slippers, hair curlers and false eyelashes.”

Van Horne wasn’t at the protest. Even so, her highly imaginative characterization was taken up a few days later by Art Buchwald, then the leading humor columnist in American journalism.

Buchwald wrote with tongue in check how 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 point out in Getting It Wrong, Buchwald’s nationally syndicated column about the Atlantic City protest helped introduce the erroneous notion of flamboyant bra-burning to a national audience.


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