W. Joseph Campbell

Is this bra-burning photo authentic?

In Bra-burning, Media myths, Newspapers, Photographs on February 15, 2011 at 8:21 am

Bra-burning in Toronto, 1979 (Bettmann/Corbis)

It is claimed from time to time that burning bras figured in no feminist protest of the late 1960s and 1970s. Bra-burning, it is sometimes said, was little more than a media-concocted myth.

But this photograph, taken near Toronto city hall in March 1979, suggests otherwise. (A larger version of the image is available here.)

Update: The photo is genuine.

The occasion was International Women’s Day and the demonstrators were protesting the contents of a controversial Ontario Provincial Police report about rape.

But why would protesters incensed about a police report burn bras? The connection seems elusive.

And that’s one reason why I wonder about the photo’s authenticity, whether it was improperly edited. I’m not saying it’s a hoax or a ruse; I’m saying I have reservations.

I’ve conducted a good deal of research about feminist bra-burning; my latest book, Getting It Wrong, offers evidence that — assertions to the contrary notwithstanding — bras were burned, briefly, at the famous women’s liberation protest in September 1968 against the Miss America pageant at Atlantic City.

That evidence “cannot be taken lightly, dismissed or ignored,” I write in Getting It Wrong, which debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths — those dubious stories about the news media that masquerade as factual.

I also acknowledge that the evidence of bra-burning at Atlantic City doesn’t corroborate the “widely held image of angry feminists demonstratively setting fire to their bras and tossing the flaming undergarments into a spectacular bonfire.”

I saw the image of bra-burning in Toronto for the first time last week, accompanying an article posted February 6 at the online site of the London Guardian. The image was credited to the Bettmann/Corbis photo archive.

The archive’s online record says the bra-burning photograph was taken in Toronto on March 8, 1979. Information about the photographer and place of publication are not available, however.

Corbis notes that it licenses photographs for sale; it doesn’t vouch for their authenticity.

The image of the Toronto protest certainly seems to pose a further challenge to claims that feminist bra-burning is a media myth. While the demonstrators in the photograph hardly look angry, their protest certainly seems flamboyant, what with flames leaping hungrily from the burn barrel.

The photograph suggests a vivid moment of demonstrative bra-burning.

But, then, maybe those flames are lapping a bit too hungrily at the dangling white bra.

Why hasn’t that bra yet caught fire?

And wouldn’t it have been more logical and emphatic to drop a copy of the controversial police report into the flaming burn barrel?

Interestingly, the leading Toronto newspapers of the time did not mention the bra-burning episode in their reports about the protest.

The Toronto Star of March 9, 1979, said that the demonstrators were outraged by the provincial police report, which had identified hitchhiking, alcohol consumption, and drug use as factors in many rapes.

“The [protesting] women lit sparklers and set a garbage can on fire as they booed the report’s findings,” the report in the Star said, identifying the demonstrators as members of Women Against Violence Against Women.

Lighted sparklers held aloft can be seen in the photograph; the placard shown in the image bears the acronym of Women Against Violence Against Women.

The report in Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper was more detailed — but likewise made no mention of the burning bra.

The Globe and Mail said the protest was “boisterous” and aimed at the police report, which the demonstrators dismissed as “‘dazzling in its illogic.’”

The newspaper also reported:

“The women carried signs saying: ‘Take a Rapist to Lunch — Charcoal Broiled’ and ‘Hookers Who Wink Go to the Clink! Men Who Rape Escape.’

“The women, after lighting a fire in a garbage can, to the obvious annoyance of about a dozen watchful constables, shouted: ‘Burn the rapists, burn the city, burn the OPP,” the acronym for Ontario Provincial Police.

The newspaper added: “The women charged that the OPP report was nothing less than state approval of rape and that no serious study of rape had even been done by the Government.

“The women then sang a surprisingly obscene song describing male domination of women and marched off, chanting anti-male slogans ….”

I spoke by phone the other day with Susan G. Cole, who was a member of Women Against Violence Against Women and who said she was at the protest in March 1979.

But Cole said she does not recall the bra-burning.

I shared with her a link to image posted at the Guardian site; Cole said she is not in the photograph but added that she recognized as prominent activists the women shown in the image. “We were so bright and energetic in those days,” Cole said, a bit wistfully.

Women Against Violence Against Women, Cole also said, was theatrical and very creative in its protests, adding that she is “not surprised that these guys were burning bras.”

She suggested that the Toronto demonstrators may have thought that if bras had not been flamboyantly set afire at Atlantic City in 1968, then “let’s do it now.”

I’ve tried without success to reach two of the women in the photograph. One is a lawyer in British Columbia, the other an activist in Toronto.

In the final analysis, if the image is authentic, then it represents impressive evidence of demonstrative bra-burning at a feminist protest in the 1970s. If it’s not, then it’s a well-done photo hoax, a composite that deserves unmasking.

WJC

Many thanks to FiveFeetofFury for linking to this post

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  1. [...] The indispensable W. Joseph Campbell: It is claimed from time to time that burning bras figured in no feminist protest of the late 1960s and 1970s. Bra-burning, it is sometimes said, was little more than a media-concocted myth. But this photograph, taken near Toronto city hall in March 1979, suggests otherwise. [...]

  2. [...] bra-burning episode pictured at left took place near Toronto city hall on March 8, [...]

  3. [...] did figure, flamboyantly, at a women’s protest in Toronto in March [...]

  4. [...] had had my suspicions given that it looked almost too good to be true — which can be a marker of an unethically [...]

  5. [...] in Toronto: Confirmed (posted February 19): I ascertained in this post that an image of a bra-burning protest in Toronto in 1979 was no hoax, that the photograph was [...]

  6. […] protest at Atlantic City during the 1968 Miss American pageant. And in Toronto in March 1979, a demonstration was capped by a bra-burning, intended as a way to attract media attention. A photograph of the […]

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