W. Joseph Campbell

‘Those bra-burning times': And just when were they?

In Bra-burning, Debunking, Media myths on March 1, 2011 at 8:44 am

Atlantic City, 1968

Bra-burning” is a euphonic term that emerged in the late 1960s to dismiss the women’s liberation movement as trivial, shallow, and even a bit primitive.

The epithet is still used to insult feminist advocacy.

Bra-burning” also lives on as a cliché — “convenient shorthand,” as I write in my mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, “for describing the upheaval” of the 1960s and 1970s.

The term sometimes is invoked quite casually, as in “the era of bra-burning,” the “hysteria of bra-burning,” and “the bra-burning days of the turbulent 1960s.”

A commentary the other day in the Detroit Free Press offered up “those bra-burning times” in characterizing the 1970s.

The commentary’s author, the Free Press business and autos editor, recalled that in the 1970s, her mother had given her a book titled Women Who Dared to be Different.

“It certainly was a book for those bra-burning times,” she wrote, “and it told the stories of women who pioneered in professions once reserved for men.”

Of particular interest to Media Myth Alert is the casual reference to “those bra-burning times.”

“Bra-burning” may be an enduring turn of phrase. But the act of “bra-burning” neither defined nor figured prominently in feminist protests of the 1970s. Or of the 1960s.

There was hardly any bra-burning back in the day. Or at any time since.

I offer in Getting It Wrong evidence that bras were set afire, briefly, at the famous women’s liberation protest in 1968 against the Miss America pageant at Atlantic City, New Jersey.

The evidence comes from two witness accounts — one of them published in the local newspaper, the Press of Atlantic City, on September 8, 1968, the day after the protest.

That account appeared beneath the byline of a veteran reporter named John L. Boucher and carried the headline:

“Bra-burners blitz boardwalk.”

Boucher’s article referred to the burn barrel that demonstrators had dubbed the “Freedom Trash Can” and stated:

“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.’”

Boucher’s account, as I note in Getting It Wrong, “did not elaborate about the fire and the articles burning in the Freedom Trash Can, nor did it suggest the fire was all that important. Rather, the article conveyed a sense of astonishment that an event such as the women’s liberation protest could take place near the venue of the pageant.”

That account was buttressed by the recollections of Jon Katz, a prolific writer who in 1968 was a young reporter for the Atlantic City Press.

He was on the boardwalk the day of the protest, gathering material for a sidebar article about reactions to the demonstration.

Katz’s article did not mention the burning bras. But in correspondence with me, Katz has stated:

“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.”

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 ….”

Boucher’s long-overlooked article and Katz’s more recent recollections represent strong evidence that “bras and other items were set afire, if briefly, at the 1968 Miss America protest in Atlantic City,” I write in Getting It Wrong. “This evidence cannot be taken lightly, dismissed or ignored.

“But it must be said as well,” I add, “that the witness accounts of Boucher and Katz lend no support to the far more vivid and popular imagery that many bras went up in flames in flamboyant protest that September day.”

Bra-burning did figure, flamboyantly, at a women’s protest in Toronto in March 1979.

But as I discussed in a recent post at Media Myth Alert, bra-burning wasn’t that demonstration’s focal point. Setting fire to a bra was a way for the media-savvy protesters to call attention to their grievances — specifically, a controversial police report about rape.

Otherwise, the evidence is scant at best of feminist protesters in the 1960s and 1970s setting fire to bras and tossing the flaming undergarments into spectacular bonfires.

WJC

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