The legend of “bra-burning” emerged 42 years ago this week in the aftermath of a women’s liberation demonstration on the boardwalk at Atlantic City.
Getting It Wrong offers evidence that bras and other items were burned–or at least smoldered–for a short time during the protest September 7, 1968, which was called to denounce the Miss America pageant at Atlantic City as a mindless spectacle that demeaned women.
The demonstration’s organizers have long insisted that nothing was set afire at the Atlantic City protest, which, as scholars such as Thomas Lieb have noted, is regarded as decisive in the emergence of the women’s movement of the late 20th century.
Feminists have long claimed that “bra-burning” was an injurious turn of phrase, intended to denigrate the women’s movement and belittle its objectives of gender equality.
A centerpiece of the women’s liberation protest at Atlantic City was the so-called “Freedom Trash Can” (see photo, above), into which demonstrators placed what they called “instruments of torture,” such as brassieres, girdles, and high-heeled shoes, as well as copies of Playboy and Cosmopolitan magazines.
My research, as described in Getting It Wrong, found a long-overlooked contemporaneous account in the Press of Atlantic City that said bras and other items in the Freedom Trash Can were set afire that day.
That account was written by a veteran reporter named John Boucher and published September 8, 1968, beneath the headline:
“Bra-burners blitz boardwalk.”
That account, which appeared on page 4, was separately endorsed years later by Jon Katz, who in 1968 was a young reporter for the Press. He also covered the women’s liberation 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,” Katz said in an interview with me while I was researching Getting It Wrong.
“I am quite certain of this.”
Katz also told me:
“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.”
As I point out in Getting It Wrong, 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 a fiery spectacle that September day.
Their accounts, I write, don’t corroborate the “widely held image of angry feminists demonstratively setting fire to their bras and tossing the flaming undergarments into a spectacular bonfire.”
Such imagery can be traced to imaginative and sardonic newspaper columns published shortly after the Miss America protest.
Harriet Van Horne, writing in the New York Post a few days after the demonstration, declared:
“My feeling about the liberation ladies is that they’ve 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, who was not at the protest, also wrote that the highlight of the demonstration “was a bonfire in a Freedom Trash Can. With screams of delight they consigned to the flames such shackling, demeaning items as girdles, bras, high-heeled slippers, hair curlers and false eyelashes.” (Emphasis added.)
The widely read humor columnist, Art Buchwald, took up the riff a few days later, writing in his nationally syndicated column 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.”
Buchwald added: “The final and most tragic part of the protest took place when several of the women publicly burned their brassieres.”
The columns by Van Horne and Buchwald introduced to national audiences the notion that bra-burning was flamboyant at Atlantic City. The columns conjured, I write in Getting It Wrong, “a powerful mental image of angry women setting fire to bras and twirling them, defiantly, for all on the boardwalk to see.”
At most, bras smoldered in the Freedom Trash Can.
So what’s the significance of the Boucher and Katz accounts, as described in Getting It Wrong?
At very least, I write, they “offer fresh dimension to the bra-burning legend.
“They represent two witness accounts that bras and other items were burned, or at least smoldered, in the Freedom Trash Can. There is now evidence that bras and other items were set afire, if briefly, at the 1968 Miss America protest in Atlantic City.”
It’s evidence that cannot be taken lightly, dismissed, or ignored, as it signals that the narrative about bra-burning needs to be modified.