W. Joseph Campbell

The ‘seismic cultural shifts’ of the 1960s: Protests, assassination — and bra-burning?

In Bra-burning, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post on March 25, 2012 at 9:59 am

Feminist “bra-burning” of the late 1960s was more media myth than sustained reality.

But a commentary in today’s Washington Post places “bra-burning” among the “[s]eismic cultural shifts” of the late 1960s.

A column that promoted a media trope

Yes, “bra burning.”

This bizarre and baseless claim appears in a commentary that ruminates about the Mad Men television series.

The opening paragraph says:

“On ‘Mad Men,’ the AMC television show that returns for its fifth season Sunday night, booze, cigarettes, unprotected sex, cholesterol-rich foods and negligent parenting play starring roles in a surprisingly accurate and yet idealized picture of a New York ad agency in the mid-1960s. Seismic cultural shifts — Vietnam War protests, bra-burning and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. — are just over the horizon.”

The show, the Post’s commentary avers, “gives us a window into the mind-sets of our parents and grandparents.”

Oh, sure it does.

But even frivolous ruminations can bring opportunities for myth-busting, and bra-burning was hardly a “seismic” event of the late 1960s.

It hardly signaled “cultural shift.”

In fact, feminist “bra-burning” was mostly a non-event.

I call it a “nuanced myth” in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, which debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths.

The derivation of the nuanced myth can be traced to September 7, 1968, and the women’s liberation protest against the Miss America pageant at Atlantic City, N.J. The protest was organized by a small group called New York Radical Women.

The demonstrators included about 100 women who traveled to the Atlantic City boardwalk to denounce 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 harsh rhetoric notwithstanding, the daylong protest on the boardwalk wasn’t very raucous. A centerpiece was what the demonstrators called the “Freedom Trash Can,” into which they tossed “instruments of torture” such as brassieres, girdles, high-heeled shoes, and copies of Playboy and Cosmopolitan.”

One demonstrator held a girdle over the Freedom Trash Can, according to the New York Times, and chanted:

“No more girdles, no more pain. No more trying to hold the fat in vain.”

The protest’s organizers had let it be known in advance of the demonstration that they planned to set fire to bras and other items at Atlantic City. But once there, plans supposedly were abandoned in favor of what of was called a “symbolic bra-burning.”

And through the years, the demonstration’s organizers have been adamant that no bras were burned during the protest.

Nonetheless, newspaper columnists writing in the demonstration’s aftermath offered highly imaginative accounts of “bra-burning” at Atlantic City.

Notably, Harriet Van Horne wrote in the New York Post that a highlight of the demonstration “was a bonfire in a Freedom Trash Can.”

Van Horne, who was not at the Atlantic City protest, also wrote:

“With screams of delight they consigned to the flames such shackling, demeaning items as girdles, bras, high-heeled slippers, hair curlers and false eyelashes.”

Nationally syndicated humor columnist Art Buchwald also picked up on the bra-burning meme, writing with tongue in cheek that he was “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.’”

Buchwald also wrote: “The final and most tragic part of the protest took place when several of the women publicly burned their brassieres.”

And a media myth took hold.

What nuances the myth are witness accounts, discussed in Getting It Wrong, that bras were set afire, if briefly, during the protest.

Boucher, 1949 photo

One witness account appeared in the Press of Atlantic City the day after the protest. The newspaper’s first-hand report, written by a veteran reporter named John L. Boucher, included this passage:

“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.’”

Also covering the demonstration was Jon Katz, then a young reporter for the Atlantic City Press. In my research into bra-burning, Katz told me:

“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.”

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, these accounts that bras were burned in the “Freedom Trash Can” cannot be “taken lightly, dismissed or ignored.”

At the same time,  I write, 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.”

There was no mass bra-burning at Atlantic City, no feminists twirling flaming bras over the heads. Fire at most was a modest and fleeting aspect of the protest on that long ago September day.

It was, to be sure, no seismic event.


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