Feminist Myths: Bra-Burning Discussion (June 1998)


Query From Alison Woo amwoo@gte.net 22 June 1998

I am doing research work for a media project on the American women's movement (1963-1978). I wanted to get some feedback on what some of the greatest myths of that time were. Myths, that on the surface, seemed to define the era, but if fact were false.

The biggest myth of all was the whole bra-burning legend. Thanks and I will look forward to your responses.

Responses:

From Barbara Winslow purplewins@compuserve.com 23 June 1998

According to the NY Times reporting on the Miss America contest, Robin Morgan was quoted as to saying that women were going to burn bras.

Whether or not women burned a bra in the freedom trash can, or burned their bras other places has been hotly disputed. I personally know women who were not at Atlantic City in September 1968 who swear they saw women burning bras. It's similar to the myth of anti-war protestors spitting at returning Vietnam vets.

From Debbie Ann Doyle dadoyle@bellatlantic.net 23 June 1998

I recently read the New York Times coverage of the 1968 Miss America protest in connection with my dissertation research, which I think shows the origins of the bra-burning myth, at least in part.

Asked if the Atlantic City government had objected to the protest, Robin Morgan told a reporter the mayor had been worried about fire safety, but "We told him we wouldn't do anything dangerous--just a symbolic bra-burning." This article made clear that no fires were set, but by Sept. 28th the _Times_ refers to "bra-burnings" as if they happened.

This issue has come up on the list frequently lately. I think the interesting question here is why this particular myth seems to have such resonance both to anti-feminists and to the feminists who take such pains to debunk it. Is it because it implies a total rejection of the demands of beauty? Because it implies slovenliness, being "out of control?" Do we want to counteract this myth because it seems to trivialize the goals of the Women's Movement? Does anyone have any thoughts?

From Maria Elena Raymond M_Raymond@compuserve.com 23 June 1998

I think, for me, the most important reason to debunk the bra-burning myth is that it isn't true. As historians we have a responsibility to keep the record straight.

From Anya Jabour jabour@selway.umt.edu 23 June 1998

Debbie Doyle has asked an excellent question. I teach U.S. women's history and I always mention the myth of bra-burning, but I had not previously examined my reasons for doing so. I think that revealing the false basis of this myth serves several purposes. First, and perhaps most importantly, it shows how biased portrayals of feminism have been from the outset. Second, from a pedagogical angle, it catches students' interest and perhaps quells more conservative students' fears. Third, it shows the organizational abilities of the radical feminists, thereby demonstrating some unexpected common ground with liberal feminists. I'll be interested to see others' thoughts on this matter.

From Tom Heaney tmheaney@uci.edu 23 June 1998

I think Debbie Doyle's query about the myth of bra burning raises some interesting issues. I was quite surprised myself when I learned (only recently) that the bra-burning was simply a myth. (Indeed, my first reaction was that the idea this was a myth was myth itself.)

I think one reason why the myth has retained such power among anti-feminists (and post feminists) is that it trivialized the demands of the women's movement. Bras appear utterly mundane, and not overt symbols of patriarchy. To those opposed to the women's movement, the idea that these female rebels felt it was necessary to "burn" their bras just "demonstrated" how out-of-touch or radical they were.

There is also the comparison to the burning of draft cards by Vietnam War protestors. Burning one's draft card was not only an act of defiant protest, it was also against the law; this is what gave that particular act its power. So, the act of "burning" one's bra, something completely legal (depending on local ordinances regarding open fires anyway) seemed ridiculous. It was this farcical quality of the myth that I think resonated so strongly with those who opposed the movement or were at least apathetic to it. The image of the "bra burner" was useful to anti-feminists because it marginalized [the] feminists.

The image of the "bra burner" has mutated into the more generic "radical feminist." Back in the '70s, women who wanted social/political change were concerned about speaking out for fear of being viewed as one of those "crazy bra burners." In a class I co-taught last summer, many of our female students admitted wanting reproductive freedom, the end of gender-based discrimination, equal pay, restructured gender roles, more employer flexibility on family issues, etc, but were more worried about being seen as a "radical feminist" (one older student actually said "bra burning feminist"). When asked, what was it that "radical feminists" wanted that they didn't, they weren't able to articulate it.

Thus, I would argue that the myth of "bra-burning" marginalizes feminism and silences those women who might otherwise voice their support. Debunking the myth by itself isn't very useful; we have to demonstrate how such a myth functions to restrain political or social action that might be considered feminist.

From Gael Graham graham@wpoff.wcu.edu 24 June 1998

I'm doing research on the 'burning images' of the 1960s. When you think about it, all kinds of things were burning in that era. Tom Heaney's comparison to draft-card burning is an apt one, although I would point out that although it WAS illegal to burn a draft card, this was also a symbolic gesture, since it in no way affected one's draft status and very few men were prosecuted for it. I think in part burning bras helped link radical feminism to all of the other radical groups and issues of the sixties, and contributed to the image of the era as an 'inflammatory' one. That served to inflate the 'danger' of radical feminism even as it trivialized their demands, as others have noted.

Here too we might look at the social evolution of the bra from being a sexy French (ooh, the implications of that in American society) gizmo that uplifted and emphasized the breasts, it had become, by the 1950s, part of the confining, conforming 'body armour' that women wore. [A 'foundational garment,' in the revealing language of lingerie.] Rejecting the bra thus could be a rejection of a whole slew of conservative ideas about women's place. Burning an apron would have been similar, but without the shock value of the threat of women's unrestrained breasts (and hence sexuality). I'm still thinking all of this through, and hope to see more discussion.

From Eve Rosenhaft dan85@liverpool.ac.uk 24 June 1998

I am intrigued by the fact that most (all?) of the contributions to this thread have taken it for granted that the 'bra-burning' myth is negatively charged. It's clear that it has found currency as a basis for ridiculing feminism -- but then the ridiculing of feminists has a venerable tradition, even when they're doing entirely unridiculous things like demanding the vote.

For me, as a junior member of the '68 generation (I didn't get to Atlantic City, busy organising the movement to win girls the right to wear pants to my high school), the image of burning bras has strong positive resonances. It is a reminder, first, that the feminist critique of patriarchy has always been conscious of the power of symbols and symbolic representation both in confirming and in subverting the social order; this insistence has often been the subject of ridicule or (as in the 'Political Correctness debate') demonization. I don't think the self-conscious analogy with draft-card burning is forced or trivial; as a symbolic act, both represent refusals to collaborate in other people's appropriations of one's body. Of course having to wear a bra/a corset/a gender/caste uniform in the form of highly sexualised clothing is of a different order from being sent to die on the battlefield. But I wonder whether thirty years on we have forgotten how tyrannical the dress code for girls and women was until the 1970s, what it took to resist - for example - the pressure to put a daughter into a 'training bra' at the age of 11 or so, and how much the everyday experience of women's liberation had to do with wearing what you wanted and feeling comfortable in your clothes. So if what Robin Morgan said was that they *weren't* going to burn their bras, she was nevertheless referring to what was then a real issue in language that feminists would understand. Dress reform -- another venerable tradition in feminist history...

From Tim Hodgdon Tim.Hodgdon@asu.edu 24 June 1998

In addition to the points Tom Heaney made about trivialization, I would add that for opponents of feminism, promulgation of the myth was a way of trivializing radical feminists' critique of women's oppression as in part an oppression by and through gendered sexual practice. Protest against sexual objectification formed an important dimension of the early movement's activism--though it was not deeply theorized at the time. To opponents, the myth encapsulated feminists' purportedly futile and irrational protest against human sexual "nature," obviating the need for popular engagement with the substance of feminist consciousness-raising. And the myth has lived on in the popular imagination because it continues to confirm the presumption that radical feminists stand "against sex" as part of a supposed hatred of men.

From JoAnn Castagna joann-castagna@uiowa.edu 24 June 1998

There's a style/cultural context to the "bra-burning" discussion in 1968.

Whether or not a woman wore a bra was much discussed at the time [Cosmopolitan ran an article that gave instructions on how to determine whether a woman "could" go braless and still be attractive, for example]and there were clear cultural signals expressed by a decision not to wear a bra. These included an assertive and self-actualizing sexuality, a disdain for middle-class work models [bra-less women were not "dressing for success"], a preference for comfort over constraint, and so on. From the more silent/less aggressive action of discarding a garment to the more active/aggressive action of burning the garment is not that large a step, and the symbolism was simply stronger. Any analysis of this myth would be strengthened, I think, by a comparison with the similar 19th century events, including the adoption of bloomers by some radical feminists, and the more general "dress reform" discussions that were equally threatening to the status quo.

From Ann K. Wentworth awentwor@sescva.edc.edu 24 June 1998

This discussion of the origins of the "bra-burning" myth is very interesting. In addition to the points already made, I think there is another aspect that relates to the public perception of feminists during the late 1960s and early 1970s. As someone who was an undergraduate at the time, I remember that going without a bra was considered to be a defiant act--a rejection of authority (parents) and related to the whole counter-cultural "dress code" that preferred tattered jeans and tie-dyed T-shirts to the dresses we'd been required to wear in high school. The idea that someone might actually burn her bra brought the whole matter of defiance (symbolized by dress and appearance) into the public realm. It is not always visibly apparent if a young woman went without a bra, but if she could be accused of having burned one, she undoubtedly didn't wear one. I imagine this connection between going bra-less and defiance of authority/tradition contributed greatly to the resonance of the bra-burning myth among feminists and non-feminist alike.

The connection between bras and defiance continued into the 1970s. I remember working on a TVA archaeological field project (one of two women in a group of men) in very conservative rural middle Tennessee and the project director (a UT professor) told us at the onset of the field project that women were expected to wear bras at all times. The implication was that going without a bra was defying public mores, might jeopardize the project's success and was grounds for dismissal. I still wonder what would have happened had either of us decided to make an issue of the matter...

The focus on bras as representing confining tradition and authority brings up some very interesting questions about who defines "beauty" and why bras in particular were singled out (other than the fact that men don't wear them).

From Jo Freeman 24 June 1998

I think we, as historians, need to be careful that in our attempts to debunk myths we do not create new blinders on our ability to see the past. I have taught students of this bra-burning myth, only to find that they felt they had evidence to the contrary. In several of the courses I have taught on modern women's history, young women in the class spoke in detail about their mothers' stories of bra-burning, passed down to them as stories of powerful womanhood. Although the students could have been confused or misled about their mothers' actions, it seems quite possible that media stories about alleged bra-burnings led to actual burnings in localized protests (like college campuses). It is very difficult to claim that no one ever burned as bra as a public protest.

From Lisa Krissoff Boehm lboehm@SoftHome.net 24 June 1998

All this idle speculation on bra-burning and the Miss America contest prompts me to suggest that some of the original sources be consulted (and I don't mean the New York Times). Check out the following:

Joanna Foley Martin "Confessions of a Non-Bra Burner," _Columbia Journalism Review_ 1971, pp.11-15 [review of the press' titillating coverage and lack of regard for actual facts].

Judith Hole and Ellen Levine _Rebirth of Feminism_(Quadrangle Books, 1971) They interviewed the participants and didn't rely on press coverage.

Judith Duffet "Voice of the Women's Liberation Movement," Oct.1968 Story by actual participant, available on microfilm in the Herstory collection

If my memory is correct ( and I haven't read recently the sources cited above) the whole myth started with an Art Buchwald column BEFORE the protest itself. In response to the publicity promoting it he asked, in his usual humorous vein, he asked if women were going to burn their bras. Clearly he was fantasizing a possible action by emerging feminists from the ongoing draft card burning by anti-war protestors. Why bras, when all sorts of "objects of female oppression" were going to be tossed into a trash can? I think that had more to do with the male breast fetish than anything planned by women. After all, if women were going to burn underwear to protest oppression, we'd picked the girdle not the bra. Those of you who are too young to remember girdles and the requirement that all well-dressed women wear them, may not fully appreciate this.

Did any women burn bras? yes, but not us. In Chicago, where I lived at the time, a local DJ did a publicity stunt with models paid to stand before the cameras and burn bras. Got a lot of local coverage, and the photos occasionally show up in books because uninformed photo researchers think they are the real thing. If you look at how they are dressed, and at all the men lined up there with them, you can tell this was not a women's liberation event. It's another example of how myth becomes history.

From Clare Spark cspark@ix.netcom.com 24 June 1998

There was no bra-burning at Atlantic City at the Miss America pageant? I seem to remember picture, but perhaps I hallucinate. Maybe I'm mistaken in my recollection, but I can tell you that many women in the movement were not wearing bras for many years, including myself. Many of us also stopped wearing high-heeled shoes and any other garment that was bad for the body's health and comfort.

I remember as a young girl hating brassieres as they cut into my skin and collected moisture underneath the bands, causing skin irritation but I felt that I must wear them or be stigmatized.

I would guess that the entire issue is bound up with the presentation of the cantilevered breast as eternally sexualized and lactating, hence an appeal to the primitive emotions of men and possibly other women, as well. (Although the visible nipple is probably also a provocation.) If my analysis is accurate with respects to motives of other feminists, I don't see it as a trivial issue at all.

From Joan Gundersen gunderj@numen.elon.edu 24 June 1998

The problem with this analysis is that it assumes that feminists actually did the bra-burning. As the earlier posts point out, the "burned bra" was a non-event. WEARING ( or rather NOT wearing a bra) did for awhile take on the status of a political statement. However, those we should be analyzing concerning the "bra-burning" is the anti-feminists and popular press who made this a symbol that THEY foisted on feminism. The term certainly helped to confuse the distinction between women's liberation and "liberated" women (i.e. sexually available).

From Page Dougherty Delano paged1@aol.com 25 June 1998

I think Tom Heaney's comments about the trivialization via bra-burning is valid. But one should also keep in mind other images of burning that lurked in women's minds at the time: lynching/burning of black men,burning of women as witches, as well as the self-immolation of Buddhist monks in Saigon, and burning of villages in Vietnam. These were images very much connected, as we say now, "to the body"--and the breast itself...who held it and was in control of it, was certainly a political question erupting at the time. I honestly can't speak to the myth/reality issue of Atlantic City even though I joined Witch shortly after that and the Bride's Fair demonstration (a theatrical challenge of the clothing and commodification of brides, if I recall). I second the suggestion to look at Judith Duffet's oral history. There was not that much political bra interest in the in our group in 1969--many of us lived on the lower east side of New York and some of us wore bras because with larger breasts it was more comfortable and we didn't get hassled from the men in the streets. Although With and others certainly had a sense of play about what images and actions could capture and concentrate aspects of women's degradation--some of which seemed nearly unconscious-the misuses and misconsturings of such political/theatrical moments were out of their control. Indeed, remember this was a time when many women were still wearing white gloves as part of the uniform of gentility and virtue. Perhaps one could have said, as well, if they didn't burn bras at Atlantic City, it would have been cool if they had--and to go a little more on the offensive about such possibilities. To suggest that attacks against feminism are the fault of feminists omits the radical and disruptive nature of what those openings meant in the late 1960s--, or, on the contrary, that our movement was so easily victimized and made fun of, suggests our lack of agency and political tenacity. Additionally, there were many discoveries to make--from our feelings of pleasure and amazement that we could be outrageously active, to trying to make sense of or deconstruct what was coming from the (new) left, and really to invent new political thinking.

Probably about a year later we gathered up shitty diapers (two women in downtown NYC Witch at the time had kids, one of whom was on welfare; Robin Morgan had left by then) for two targets--McSorley's Bar, which would not let women to enter, and Gov. Rockefeller's office, as 2 sites which seemed particularly anti-women. It seems silly so many years later, but we thought it was militant and articulate at the same time. Indeed, McSorley's bar has been somewhat successful as painting themselves as victims in general--why would girls get so upset that they couldn't come into a bar--so that the anger of the women seems quite trivial in general.

Also, on myths, see a recently published book [by Jerry Lembcke, NY Press) about the myths of spitting on veterans (and it was really a myth), with an amazing life of its own...since mostly anti-war GIs and anti-war demonstrators were spit on.