W. Joseph Campbell

Bra-burning, a media myth ‘that will never die’?

In Bra-burning, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post on June 8, 2011 at 1:23 pm

Bra-burning a myth? (Corbis)

A commentary in the Washington Post the other day referred to the famous protest at Atlantic City in 1968 at which women’s liberation demonstrators “tossed their bras and high heels into a trash can … kicking off the bra-burning myth that will never die.”

Well, it was more nuanced than that. Bra-burning, at least in a modest, smoldering kind of way, wasn’t such a myth at all.

I offer evidence in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, which debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths, that bras were  set afire, briefly, during the protest on the Atlantic City boardwalk on September 7, 1968. The 100 or so demonstrators there that day were protesting the Miss America pageant as a sexist and degrading spectacle.

I also note in Getting It Wrong that “the notion of flamboyant bra-burnings is fanciful and highly exaggerated.” The demonstrators at Atlantic City, I write, did not set fire to bras and twirl them above their heads in a way that coincides with the far more vivid and popular imagery of bra-burning.

But evidence that bra-burning — or bra-smoldering — did take place at Atlantic City comes from separate witness accounts, including a report published in the Press of Atlantic City on September 8, 1968.

That account appeared beneath the byline of a veteran reporter, John L. Boucher, and carried the headline:

“Bra-burners blitz boardwalk.”

The article referred to a burn barrel that the demonstrators dubbed the “Freedom Trash Can” and stated:

“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.’”

Boucher’s account was buttressed by recollections of the writer Jon Katz, who in 1968 was a young reporter for the Atlantic City Press. Katz was at protest that September day, gathering material for a sidebar article about reactions to the demonstration.

Katz’s sidebar focused on the befuddled reactions of passersby who saw the women’s liberation protest but did not mention fire in the “Freedom Trash Can.”

However, in correspondence with me, Katz stated:

“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 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.”

Nearly 11 years after the protest at Atlantic City, a feminist group in Canada called Women Against Violence Against Women burned a bra during a protest near Toronto’s City Hall.

One of the demonstrators in Toronto recalled that the group was media-savvy and “knew that if they burned a bra, someone would take their picture.” (See photo, above.)

So bra-burning is no myth. It’s the mischaracterization that feminists never burned bras that more likely “will never die.”


Many thanks to Little Miss Attila for linking to this post.

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