W. Joseph Campbell

Enticing the media: More on bra-burning in Toronto, 1979

In Bra-burning, Debunking, Media myths, Photographs on March 4, 2011 at 7:00 am

Toronto, 1979 (Bettman/Corbis)

Another participant at the 1979 bra-burning protest in Toronto has offered recollections of the event, at which the group Women Against Violence Against Women protested a controversial police report about the causes of rape.

The participant, Amy Gottlieb, said in an email forwarded to me that the photograph (left) “definitely is not doctored.”

(I had had my suspicions given that it looked almost too good to be true — which can be a marker of an unethically edited photograph and a media-driven myth.)

Gottlieb referred to Pat Murphy, who is shown in the photograph dangling the bra above the hungry flames, and wrote:

“Pat was threatening to burn a bra because the movement was media savvy and felt that weighing in on the stereotype of ‘feminist bra-burners’ was actually an effective way to say: Women will control our own bodies, thank you!

“The bra burning was a way to entice the media as well as [offer] a critique of the police report.”

I spoke recently with Vicki Trerise, who is shown at the far right in the photograph; she, too, said the demonstrators were media-savvy and “knew that if they burned a bra, someone would take their picture.”

Interestingly, the leading Toronto newspapers at the time didn’t mention the bra-burning in reports about the demonstration, which took place near Toronto city hall on March 8, 1979.

The Globe and Mail, in a fairly detailed account published the following day, characterized the demonstration as “boisterous” and reported:

“The women carried signs saying: ‘Take a Rapist to Lunch — Charcoal Broiled’ and ‘Hookers Who Wink Go to the Clink! Men Who Rape Escape.’

“The women, after lighting a fire in a garbage can, to the obvious annoyance of about a dozen watchful constables, shouted: ‘Burn the rapists, burn the city, burn the OPP,” acronym for the Ontario Provincial Police, which had issued the disputed report about rape.

The Globe and Mail also reported: “The women charged that the OPP report was nothing less than state approval of rape and that no serious study of rape had even been done by the Government.

“The women then sang a surprisingly obscene song describing male domination of women and marched off, chanting anti-male slogans ….”

Before the demonstrators moved on, the Globe and Mail reported, a “few chuckles from male onlookers provoked a slight shoving match, including one reporter by a large lady in lavender brandishing a cat-o-nine tails.”

The issue of the Toronto Star of March 9, 1979, carried a brief report about the Women Against Violence Against Women demonstration, noting the protesters’ anger at the police report, which had identified hitchhiking, alcohol consumption, and drug use as causes of many rapes.

“The women lit sparklers and set a garbage can on fire as they booed the report’s findings,” reported the Star, which did not mention the bra-burning.

Lighted sparklers held aloft are clearly visible in the bra-burning photograph. Rights to the photograph are held by the Bettmann/Corbis archive, which says it does not know the identity of the photographer.

It is sometimes claimed said that no bras were ever burned at a feminist protest in the 1960s or 1970s. The photograph of the demonstration in Toronto proves otherwise.

Moreover, I offer evidence in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, that bras were burned, briefly, at the famous women’s liberation protest against the 1968 Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

“This evidence,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “cannot be taken lightly, dismissed or ignored,” and suggests “that the myth of mass or demonstrative bra-burning needs to be modified.”

The bra-burning in Toronto in 1979 further calls for revision of the notion that feminist bra-burning was a media myth.


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