W. Joseph Campbell

Ignoring nuance in the bra-burning myth

In Bra-burning, Debunking, Error, Media myths on May 30, 2013 at 9:01 am

“Myths die hard.”

So says the latest issue of the Economist magazine, in an article that addresses the nuanced myth of bra-burning.


At the ‘Freedom Trash Can,’ 1968

Only there’s not much nuance in the Economist’s description.

“When a handful of feminists protested at the 1968 Miss America pageant in Atlantic City,” the Economist says, “they burned no brassières. They did, however, dump a few (and make-up and high-heeled shoes) into a ‘freedom trash can,’ while also crowning a sheep.”

The syntax of that paragraph is certainly awkward. But what most interests Media Myth Alert is the assertion “they burned no brassières.”

And that’s not quite right.

As I discuss in my myth-busting book, Getting It Wrong, there is compelling evidence that bras were indeed set afire, briefly, during a women’s liberation protest on the boardwalk at Atlantic City.

That protest took place September 7, 1968, and denounced the Miss America pageant as a degrading spectacle. Demonstrators carried placards that expressed such unsubtle sentiments as: “Up Against the Wall, Miss America,” “Miss America Sells It,” “Miss America Is a Big Falsie,” and “Miss America Goes Down.”

A centerpiece of the demonstration was what the organizers called the “Freedom Trash Can.” The Economist is correct in noting that high-heel shoes and other items were tossed into that converted burn barrel.

Bras went into the Freedom Trash Can, too. And according to a first-hand account published the following day in the Atlantic City newspaper, the Press, “bras, girdles, falsies, curlers, and copies of popular women’s magazines [were] burned in the ‘Freedom Trash Can.'”

The Press account appeared beneath this headline:

“Bra-burners blitz boardwalk.”

That account was endorsed by Jon Katz, who in 1968 was a young reporter for the Press and who wrote a sidebar article about the women’s liberation demonstration.

“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,” Katz told me in my research for Getting It Wrong.

“I am,” he added, “quite certain of this.”

Katz also said:

“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.”

When the fire flickered out, Katz said, the police dragged the trash bin to the sand.

The reference to bra-burning in the Press article the day afterward as well as Katz’s recollections “offer fresh dimension to the bra-burning legend,” I write in Getting It Wrong, noting:

“They represent two witness accounts that bras and other items were burned, or at least smoldered, in the Freedom Trash Can. 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.”

However, these accounts do not support the much more vivid and popular notion that bras went up in flames that day, in a flamboyant protest on the boardwalk.

The witness accounts, I write, do not corroborate the “widely held image of angry feminists demonstratively setting fire to their bras and tossing the flaming undergarments into a spectacular bonfire.”

And yet, as the evidence presented in Getting It Wrong makes clear, “bra-burning” is an epithet not entirely misapplied to the women’s liberation demonstration at Atlantic City.


More from Media Myth Alert:

  1. […] first-hand accounts are cited in Getting It Wrong that bras and other items were set afire, briefly, at a women’s liberation protest at Atlantic City during the 1968 Miss American […]

  2. […] ending that war, a plan on which Richard Nixon supposedly campaigned for the presidency; and the nuanced myth of bra-burning at the Miss America pageant in September […]

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