W. Joseph Campbell

The editor and the protest: Bra-burning’s intriguing sidebar

In Anniversaries, Bra-burning, Debunking, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers on September 8, 2010 at 7:27 am

The women’s liberation demonstration at Atlantic City in 1968–the event that gave rise to the legend of bra-burning–had a little-known sidebar that featured Charlotte Curtis, a prominent and pathbreaking editor for the New York Times.

Curtis, according to the Press of Atlantic City, was to have been a judge at the Miss America Pageant but backed out to cover the women’s liberation protest that took place September 7, 1968.

Curtis biography

The protest was on the boardwalk, near the Convention Center, where Miss America was crowned. The women’s liberation demonstrators denounced the pageant as a mindless spectacle demeaning to women.

And they carried placards bearing such slogans as:

“Up Against the Wall, Miss America,” “Miss America Sells It,” and “Miss America Goes Down.”

How the protest on the boardwalk gave rise to the “nuanced myth” of bra-burning–or bra-smoldering–is discussed in my new book, Getting It Wrong, which debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths.

The protest’s principal organizer, Robin Morgan, later discussed Curtis’ participatory role in covering the event–and described Curtis’ eagerness not to alert Times editors about how she helped demonstrators who had been arrested.

In her 2001 memoir, Saturday’s Child, Morgan recalled that Curtis rode with the demonstrators by bus from New York to Atlantic City.

Curtis, then the Times women’s editor, was “elegantly dressed in black (gloves, pearls, and heels) amid our colorful informality, gamely warbling ‘We Shall Overcome’ with us as we bounced along in the rattletrap buses.

“She stayed all day on the hot boardwalk with us, brought us cool drinks, laughed and applauded when we would recognize and respond to women journalists only,” Morgan wrote.

(The women’s liberation demonstrators would not speak to male reporters covering the event. Morgan later wrote that the protest’s “most enduring contribution” may have been the decision “to recognize only newswomen.”)

That night, a handful of demonstrators attended the Miss America pageant, briefly disrupted the event, and were arrested.

Morgan recalled how she went “from precinct to precinct in search of where our friends were being held. Finally, at 3 a.m., I learned they’d been released hours earlier on cash bail put up personally by ‘some older woman’ named Charlotte Curtis.

“When I phoned the next day to thank her, she asked me to keep it quiet, as ‘these dreary grey guys running the Times’ would not be amused.”

Her request “to keep it quiet” may well have been because Curtis had not only taken a role in the demonstration, but had written about it, too.

Her article for the Times appeared 42 years ago today and quoted Morgan as saying, “We told [the Atlantic City mayor] we wouldn’t do anything dangerous—just a symbolic bra-burning.”

Morgan has long insisted that the demonstrators set nothing afire that day. But her ambiguous comment to Curtis about “a symbolic bra-burning” no doubt helped propel the notion that bras were burned in a public spectacle on the boardwalk.

Curtis then was 39-years-old and well on her way to a memorable career. In all, she spent 25 years at the Times, including a stint as associate editor in charge of the daily op-ed page of opinion.

At her death in 1987, the Times eulogized Curtis as a “strong-willed, indefatigable Vassar graduate with an incisive wit.”

The anecdote about her role at the 1968 women’s liberation protest went unreported until 1999, when the Times published a letter by Morgan, who wrote to take issue with a characterization that Curtis had been “scornful of the feminist movement.”

“Actually, for a woman of her generation and prominence,” Morgan wrote in the letter to the Times, “Curtis was unusually supportive of women and feminist ideas and actions.”

Morgan proceeded to relate the anecdote about Curtis at the 1968 protest at Atlantic City.

“Charlotte Curtis had a style all her own,” Morgan wrote. “She was a lady. And she was a feminist. In her, this was no contradiction.”

WJC

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