BFTP: The myth of bra burning feminists

This post is part of our Summer Slowdown repost series, and was originally published in July 2007 with the rather uninformative post title of “Sigh”.

10 points to Indian journalist Saira Kurup for debunking the myth of bra-burning feminists as part of a column about the history of the bra.

-100 points for not getting the larger point, although Kurup is far from the only one who missed out on a crucial word in the history of the 1968 protests outside the Miss America beauty pageant.

The 1940s and ’50s embraced the new curves. But with the 1960s came consciousness about the way women are portrayed and “sexualised”. Feminist thinking was breaking new ground. Radicals like Germaine Greer raised a storm by saying that the “willingly suffered discomfort of the sixties’ bra was a hideous symbol of male oppression”, though not all feminists agreed.

Around the same time, a London School of Economics male professor said the bra’s achievement was in “converting the primitive droop into a civilised thrust”. Quite a provocative statement. In 1968, some activists demonstrated against the Miss America beauty pageant and threw objects of “female oppression” – bras, high-heeled shoes, girdles, curlers – into a trash can. They were arguing about liberation – there was never any bra-burning – but the myth of the feminist as a bra-burner was created by the western media. The image of the braless, man-hating women’s libbers was hard to shake off. (emphasis mine)

You’re not kidding about the image being hard to shake off. Kurup riffs on from this paragraph to argue that women will always need bras, and quotes an academic from New Delhi to bolster the idea that feminists should just give up on arguing against the bra.

According to John, this is what feminists object to – women being seen as consumers of products and their own beauty, health and sexuality, and even their success in life, being seen as built around consumption of products.

This just rings totally false to me. It’s a line of argument from feminists about consumerist fashion in general, but it hardly applies to bras qua bras rather than to particular manifestations of lingerie fashion. Greer did make the statement that “bras are a ludicrous invention” but she simultaneously acknowledged that some women might need support in order to be comfortable during physical exertion. What Greer was objecting to about the hideous discomfort of the 60’s bra was that the particular styling of 60’s bras was a problem because it distorted the natural shape of breasts in the service of fashion and male desire rather than simply being a support garment.

This brings me back to the “crucial word” missed by Kurup and many others who have written about feminists designating bras as one of the symbols of female oppression in 1968. What was that word, you wonder? I think it’s a word that changes the whole meaning of everything Kurup jokingly attributed to feminist objections about this particular undergarment.

You see, the bras tossed into the trash can in 1968 weren’t just any old bras. They were padded bras.

Just like the shoes tossed into the trash can in Atlantic City weren’t any old girly shoes, they were high heels. Girdles went into the trashcan, not normal underpants. Curlers went into the trash can, not hairbrushes. Kurup doesn’t mention them, but other things placed in the trash can were false eyelashes, hairspray and make-up. All products that by their very existence told women that they were not acceptable as they were, with small breasts or shoes that don’t painfully contort feet into a “sexy line” or curved bellies or their own natural hair/eyelashes/face.

The first action of the new women’s liberation movement to receive front-page coverage was a demonstration against the Miss America pageant in 1968. The reason this event got so much ink: a few women tossed some padded brassieres in a rubbish bin. No one actually burned a bra that day – as a journalist erroneously reported. In fact there’s scant evidence of underwear torchings at women’s rights demonstrations in the decade. (The only two such displays that came close were both organised by men, a disc jockey and an architect, who tried to get women to fling their bras into a barrel and the Chicago River as “media events’. Only three women cooperated in the river stunt – all models hired by the architect.)
Backlash – Susan Faludi

Apparently, the journalist whose article in the New York Post was given the title “Bra Burners and Miss America” (probably by a sub-editor) didn’t even actually claim in the article that the feminists burnt any bras that day. Lindsay van Gelder compared the trashing of bras to the burning of draft cards at Vietnam War protests, and that combined with the title of his story was enough to start the legend.

So, Saira Kurup, the reason that feminists have had little success in eradicating the bra is that feminists never wanted to eradicate the bra. Criticising certain manifestations of the bra, as I mentioned earlier, is not at all the same as wanting to see all bras disappear.

I find it interesting that the myth has feminists as bra burners instead of girdle burners or make-up burners or high heel burners. Myths are propagated and embellished according to how they appeal to the prejudices of those who hear them, and to propagate a version using those other obvious artificial enhancers of “feminine charms” would be to acknowledge that the feminists had a point, just as propagating the crucial word “padded” would emphasise the nature of that particular bra as an aid to artifice rather than simple anatomical support. Obviously bras have that little extra fillip of salacious titillation as well that aids propagation, but in the light of misrepresentations of feminism over the years it is unsurprising that the version that had the “longest legs” (as folklore scholars say) is the one that makes feminists look profoundly silly.

Categories: gender & feminism, history

Tags: , , , ,

6 replies

  1. that was so interesting – my mother and her friends must have missed the memo that it never happened – they had a bra burning day in about 1970. In Western Australia, we were so avant-garde. My father turned up and apparently triggered the burning, they were all drunk (mother et al) and talking feminism. Was quite funny, nice suburbia, everyone laughing. ice clinking in glasses, and the bras flaring and melting. (I was only 9.) And then, everyone drove home!

    • that was so interesting – my mother and her friends must have missed the memo that it never happened – they had a bra burning day in about 1970. In Western Australia, we were so avant-garde.

      I’m not at all surprised that they wouldn’t have known any different only two years later on the other side of the world – who could they have known who would actually have been at the original trashing? Their only source of information would have been the mainstream media of the time, who were heavily pushing the bra-burning story.

  2. is hard enough to find out truth with all the wonderful web at our fingertips 🙂

  3. It’s also possible that the phrase “bra burners” stuck around for a reason that had more to do with market appeal than anything else. It’s a brief, alliterative phrase. “Bra burners” is short and to the point. “Padded bra burners” is not only longer, but makes the hearer question whether the bras or the burners were padded. I’m not joking here; from a marketing standpoint, the quick, catchy phrase is the one that sells best. And, coming from the New York Post, there’s no doubt that a short, provocative phrase was created to sell newspapers. The fact that the phrase caught on and hung on is a tribute to the appeal of the effective catch-all term. I don’t like it, but this makes sense to me.

  4. Unlike Sheila, I don’t know of anyone who did any bra-burning, but I never understood what was the big deal about it in the first place – why it is talked about as So! Shocking! that it needs debunking. As far as I can tell, most of the garments that women enthusiastically recommend as increasing their comfort or mobility wrt to their breasts aren’t bras, or at least not typical bras. (Disclaimer: my own breasts are small enough that I’m more an interested observer than personally involved.)

  5. I agree, it’s the fact that it makes women look a bit silly that is the reason the myth stuck. It’s also ironic that while a burning that never happened endures in the public mind, the genocidal witch burnings which absolutely did happen over several centuries, seem to have all but disappeared from our collective memory. A truth has become a myth and a myth has become a truth.

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