W. Joseph Campbell

On columnists and burning bras

In Bra-burning, Debunking, Media myths on May 1, 2010 at 9:16 am

Two dozen men and women bared torsos and marched in Farmington, Maine, yesterday, prompting a snarky commentary in the Bangor Daily News about social protests–and bra-burning.

“In the 1960s and 1970s there was that whole Vietnam War issue and the sexual revolution to boot. There were lots of things to protest and stand for,” the commentary declared, adding:

“During that time I believe there were more than a few college-age women who burned their bras. Some believe young women tossed their bras into burning trash cans as a protest of the Vietnam War, but others stand firm that the first ‘bra burning’ incident actually occurred in 1968 at a demonstration against the Miss America contest.”

Like many discussions about bra-burning–a topic addressed in Getting It Wrong, my forthcoming book about media-driven myths–the commentary is more than a bit tangled and confused.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, the notion of bra-burning took hold in the days after the Miss America pageant at Atlantic City, N.J., on September 7, 1968.

“Early that afternoon,” I write, “about 100 women from New York City, New Jersey, Boston, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere arrived by bus at the Atlantic City boardwalk.

“They were, according to the New York Times, ‘mostly middle-aged careerists and housewives’ and they set up a picket line at Kennedy Plaza, across from the Convention Center. They were there, as one participant declared, ‘to protest the degrading image of women perpetuated by the Miss America pageant,’ which took place that night inside the Convention Center.”

A highlight of their protest came when the demonstrators tossed into a barrel what they called “instruments of torture,” including brassieres, girdles, high-heeled shoes, and magazines such as Playboy and Cosmopolitan. The protesters dubbed the barrel the Freedom Trash Can.

The protest organizers, who included the activist and former child actor Robin Morgan, have long insisted that bras and other contents of the Freedom Trash Can were not set afire during the protest.

But the notion that bra-burning was a dramatic element of the demonstration at Atlantic City was driven by syndicated columnists, including Harriett Van Horne.

Soon after the protest, Van Horne wrote that the protesters had been “scarred by consorting with the wrong men. Men who do not understand the way to a woman’s heart, i.e., to make her feel utterly feminine, desirable and almost too delicate for this hard world. … No wonder she goes to Atlantic City and burns her bra.”

Van Horne was not at the protest, however. Nor was Art Buchwald, then American journalism’s preeminent humorist, who played on the bra-burning trope in a column published in the Washington Post and other newspapers.

With tongue in cheek, Buchwald wrote that he had been “flabbergasted to read that about 100 women had picketed the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City against ‘ludicrous beauty standards that had enslaved the American woman.’”

He added: “The final and most tragic part of the protest took place when several of the women publicly burned their brassieres.”

As I note in Getting It Wrong, Buchwald’s “characterization of the protest at Atlantic City introduced the notion of flamboyant bra-burning to a national audience, conjuring as it did a powerful mental image of angry women setting fire to bras and twirling them, defiantly, for all … to see.”

But as for the claim in the Bangor Daily News commentary that “more than a few college-age women … burned their bras” in the 1960s and 1970s, well, the supporting evidence just isn’t there.

WJC

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  2. [...] Humor columnist Art Buchwald helped spread the notion that feminist demonstrators dramatically burned their bras at a Miss America protest in September [...]

  3. [...] yet, “bra-burning” is an epithet not entirely misapplied to the demonstration at Atlantic [...]

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  6. […] for all the women who have stood up and fought for our rights. “Burning a bra” (as myth would have it) at the beginning of the second wave was certainly not the start of feminism and there are many […]

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