Bra-Burning Feminists?

Another Myth of Women's History

Woman With Burning Bra
The Image Bank / Getty Images

I found a new book recently on women's history -- in general, a good overview, designed for high school or college introductory courses, judging from the level of writing.

But there it was, in a chapter on the 60s feminist movement: a reference to feminist bra-burning. I wanted to scream!

As far as any serious scholar has been able to determine, no early feminist demonstration burned bras!

The best guess is that images of draft card burning and images of women tossing bras into trash cans merged in many minds, and thus was created a vivid memory that just wasn't so.

Media commentators, the same ones who renamed the women's liberation movement with the condescending term "Women's Lib," took up the term and promoted it. Perhaps there were some bra-burnings in imitation of the supposed leading-edge demonstrations that didn't really happen, though so far there's been no documentation of those, either.

The infamous demonstration that gave birth to this rumor was the 1968 protest of the Miss America contest. Bras, girdles, nylons and other articles of constricting clothing were tossed in a trash can.

One report has the New York Times quoting Robin Morgan saying that bras would be burned. There is a New York Times article from September 8, 1968, in which Morgan promises that nothing dangerous like burning bras will be done, "just a symbolic bra-burning." Symbolic.

There was one report on September 8, 1968, in the Press of Atlantic City, with the title "Bra-burners blitz boardwalk." A reporter for the Press, Jon Katz, remembered years later that there was a brief fire in the trash can -- but apparently no one else remembers that fire.

And other reporters did not report a fire. Another example of conflating memories? But in any case certainly not the wild flames described later by media personalities like Art Buchwald who weren't even near Atlantic City at the time of the protest.

The symbolic act of tossing those clothes into the trash can was meant as a serious critique of the modern beauty culture, of valuing women for their looks instead of their whole self.

(Older feminists may remember that romantic line savvy men began to use, "I love you for your mind?") "Going braless" felt like a revolutionary act - being comfortable above meeting social expectations.

I admit: I was one of those women. I remember at about that time, my mother told me the story of when she and her sister thought they were so modern and radical because they adopted the practice of wearing brassieres! They were rebelling against the practice of their mother's generation, which still wore camisoles and other less "modern" contrivances. In fact, my mother told me, she and her sister had bought a brassiere for their mother, who tried it on once, and, put off by the elastic band's pressure, swore she'd never wear one of those torture instruments. And she never did again.

Of course, with the 1970s came a new feminist critique of bralessness and the sexual revolution in which many feminists participated. Somehow, in many circles, being sexually free meant primarily being more sexually available to men, and still doing all the laundry, cooking and house-cleaning. Going braless was as sexually titillating to men as wearing those awful brassieres of the 1950s and 1960s that looked like pointed cones.

Plus, bralessness was so easily trivialized. One Illinois legislator was quoted in the 1970s, responding to an Equal Rights Amendment lobbyist, calling feminists "braless, brainless broads."

Bralessness was out; working for the ERA was in.

But the myth of the burning bra continued, and speculating on why that legend is perpetuated is another matter for women's history.  Why might it have caught on so quickly as a myth?  Because it made the women's movement look silly, obsessed with trivialities?  It distracted from demands for equal pay, more child care, reproductive rights? The analysis of beauty paradigms and body image was too sophisticated for a headline writer to sum up?

If you've got evidence to the contrary - historians would love to hear about it, particularly if it's from before the phrase made history in the media.

More About Myths of Women's History:

© Jone Johnson Lewis .

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Bra-Burning Feminists?" ThoughtCo, Jul. 5, 2017, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2017, July 5). Bra-Burning Feminists? Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Bra-Burning Feminists?" ThoughtCo. (accessed December 11, 2017).