W. Joseph Campbell

Recalling the 1960s ‘bra-burning days of women’s lib’

In Bra-burning, Debunking, Media myths on September 6, 2011 at 4:33 am

Ah, yes: “the 60s bra-burning days of women’s lib.”

Those “bra-burning days” can be traced to the boardwalk at Atlantic City, NJ, 43 years ago, when about 100 women’s liberation demonstrators protested the Miss America pageant at the city’s Convention Center.

At the 'Freedom Trash Can,' 1968

A centerpiece of the protest was what the demonstrators called the “freedom trash can,” into which they consigned such “instruments of torture” as brassieres, girdles, high-heeled shoes, false eyelashes, copies of  Playboy and Cosmopolitan magazines.

The protesters have long insisted that, contrary to legend, bras and other items were not set afire that long ago September day.

The protest’s principal organizer, Robin Morgan, has asserted:

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

But in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, I offer evidence that bras were set afire, briefly, during the protest at Atlantic City. It was perhaps more akin to bra-smoldering.

The evidence is from separate 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.”

The article’s key passage 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.”

Boucher’s contemporaneous 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 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 burned at the 1968 protest.

As 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.”

Still, the notion that bra burnings were numerous during the late 1960s and 1970s became well-ingrained in American popular culture — as the recent reference in the Australian newspaper to “the 60s bra-burning days of women’s lib” suggests.

The phrase “bra-burning,” as I note in Getting It Wrong, became a sneering, off-hand way “of ridiculing feminists and mocking their sometimes-militant efforts to confront gender-based discrimination in the home and the work place.”

Bra-burning was hardly a common element of women’s liberation protests of the late 1960s and 1970s. Evidence is scant at best of feminist protesters during those years setting fire to bras and tossing the flaming undergarments into spectacular bonfires.

WJC

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    > Those “bra-burning days” can be traced to the boardwalk at Atlantic City, NJ, 43 years ago, when about 100 women’s liberation demonstrators protested the Miss America pageant at the city’s Convention Center. At the ‘Freedom Trash Can,’ 1968 A cente…

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