W. Joseph Campbell

‘Burn our briefs’ call in UK evokes myth of ‘bra burning’

In Bra-burning, Debunking, Media myths on January 27, 2011 at 7:02 pm

An obscure British back-bencher grabbed attention this week by suggesting it’s time for men to consider “burning their briefs,” to direct attention to what he calls “flagrant discrimination — against men.”

Back-bencher Raab, and wife

The comments by Dominic Raab, a Conservative member of Parliament, stirred inevitable reference to purported “bra burning” by feminist protestors a generation ago.

London’s Daily Telegraph made that connection the other day in paraphrasing Raab as saying British men “should follow the example of feminists who once burned their bras as he critici[z]ed … ‘flagrant discrimination’ against men.”

The Telegraph‘s headline was inspired. It read:

“Burn your Y-fronts for justice.”

Raab raised the “briefs-burning” suggestion wryly, in a commentary posted Monday. He wrote:

“From the cradle to the grave, men are getting a raw deal. Men work longer hours, die earlier, but retire later than women. … One reason women are left ‘holding the baby’ is anti-male discrimination in rights of maternity/paternity leave.”

He also declared:

“Feminists are now amongst the most obnoxious bigots.”

And he added:

“Maybe it’s time men started burning their briefs, to put an end once and for all to what Emmeline Pankhurst used to call ‘the double standard of sex morals.’” Pankhurst was a prominent women’s rights advocate in Britain in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Of especial interest to Media Myth Alert is the allusion that lurks in “burning their briefs” to purported feminist bra-burning of the late 1960s and 1970s.

As I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, “bra-burning” is a nuanced myth that can be traced to September 7, 1968, and the women’s liberation protest on the boardwalk of Atlantic City, N.J.

About 100 women gathered there to demonstrate against the Miss America pageant at the Atlantic City convention center.

At the Freedom Trash Can

A centerpiece of their demonstration was the so-called Freedom Trash Can which protesters dropped “instruments of torture” — such as brassieres, girdles, high-heeled shoes, and copies of as Playboy and Cosmopolitan magazines.

The organizers of the protest have long insisted that nothing had been set ablaze at Atlantic City. The lead organizer, Robin Morgan, has asserted:

“There were no bras burned. That’s a media myth.”

Indeed, demonstrative bra-burning was not an element of feminist protests of the 1960s and 1970s; that it was is a hardy media-driven myth.

But as I report in Getting It Wrong, there is evidence that bras were briefly though not flamboyantly set afire during the Miss America protest in 1968.

In researching Getting It Wrong, I found a long-overlooked article published in the local newspaper, the Press of Atlantic City, the day after the protest. The Press account stated, matter-of-factly:

“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.’”

Jon Katz, then a young reporter for the Press, also was at the protest that September day. Katz, who write a sidebar article about reactions to the women’s liberation demonstration, said in interviews with me that he recalled that bras and other items had been set afire during the protest.

“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 stated.

He 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.”

The contemporaneous newspaper report and the recollections of Katz represent, as I point out in Getting It Wrong, “fresh dimension to the bra-burning legend. … 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.”

But at the same time, I write, the accounts “offer no evidence to corroborate” popular imagery of feminists setting fire to their bras in flamboyant spectacle.

Demonstrative bra-burning is a myth — as dubious as thinking that many people will act on the back-bencher’s ironic suggestion that men ought to burn their briefs.

WJC

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