Bra Burning - NOT

Myths of Women's History

I found a new book recently on women's history -- a good overview, written for high school or college introductory courses, from the level of writing. But there it was, in a chapter on the 60s feminist movement: a reference to bra-burning. I wanted to scream!

As far as any serious scholar has been able to determine, NO 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 that.

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; I have been unable to find such an article (and would love a verifiable copy, if one exists).

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.

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.