Bra-Burning: A Myth That Nearly Extinguished Feminism

No More Miss America!- A Fervid Movement

The Miss America pageant was used as a platform for defining the characteristics that constitute an ideal woman. In various ways, the pageant paradoxically targeted the physical beauty of women while also emphasizing the importance of their intellectual capabilities. In other ways, it showcased the idea of maintaining the traditional roles of the domestic sphere while simultaneously promoting a sense of independence. The pageant has become an invented tradition in which it is televised and marketed to a diverse audience in order to produce an unrealistic image to represent all women across America. However, the Miss America pageant was sporadically being used as a marketing tool and in turn, used specifically white women as a scheme of propaganda [1]. This led Carol Hanisch, Robin Morgan, Shulamith Firestone, and Pam Allen, also known as the New York Radical Women, to conceive the protest against the Miss America pageant to mobilize oppressed women and contest the overall treatment imposed on them across the United States [6]. Carol Hanisch reiterated how many girls grew up witnessing this progressive event that embedded an image of beauty into their heads early on. She then uses this as an argument that the pageant was a competition meant to divide women, which led to the rise of the freedom trash can as a method to solidify an imagined community [4]. 

Freedom Trash Can from Miss America Protest in Atlantic City, 1968 (Retrieved from Duke Library)

Prior to the protest on September 7th, 1968, it was difficult for women to gain leverage in politics as they were encouraged to be submissive and apolitical. The freedom trash can was set in the midst of the Miss America pageant to take advantage of the media coverage that granted a voice to the silenced women [1]. This artifact of memory became situated in 1968 as a symbol of unification and liberation for women who have shared experiences of oppression and mocking expectations. While it did not entirely change the course of the Miss America pageant, it propelled the issues of feminism into a national debate [1].

The freedom trash can was used as a medium to dispose of all instruments of oppression such as mops, heels, corsets, make-up, etc. This took place on the Atlantic City Boardwalk and was an event that Carol Hanisch referred to as “street theater” [2]. While this physical act was used to represent the resistance against the dominating male culture, it has led to the development of a myth that promoted an alternative version of the women’s movement in 1968 [1]. Out of all items discarded, and many sexualized, bras rose to fame. Bras are garments used for support but also ironically confines the female body and in many ways parallels the metaphorical confinement to the rigid ideas of femininity. This led to the development of a notion that a ceremonial bra-burning occurred as women fought for liberation [4]. However, there was no actual burning as it was prohibited, but this myth has become a vehicle for belittlement from anti-feminists attached to misogynistic attitudes [3].

Women threw objects that represented oppression into Freedom Trash Can (Retrieved from Smithsonian)

The bra-burning trope is a significant site of memory because it has become a weak point in the face of the women’s liberation movement. As it became a symbol to denigrate and scrutinize women, it simultaneously led to the distanciation from the purpose of the movement hidden by the myth. It also fails to recognize the origins of the actual myth as it was first introduced by the New York Post reporter Lindsy Van Gelder in which she made a comparison between the female protesters and the Vietnam War protesters who were known for burning their draft cards [6]. This reflects the processual nature of the myth because once this idea passed on, people started to deviate from the analogy and started writing it into history as a fact. Ignorance of the movement allowed media to substitute a fabricated one. In other words, Jennifer Lee states that “misinformation and myths sometimes serve as placeholders in our memory when facts are not remembered.” [5]

Click here to listen to an NPR of Kathie Sarachild describing the bra-burning myth

Fifty years forward, this myth of bra-burning has resonated into current women’s movements. In general, women are still confined to the same standards that took precedence in 1968. Women are still plastered throughout media as modified versions of themselves to fit into the frame of ideal beauty. Women continue to protest against sexual harassment and violence. For example, after President Donald Trump was elected into office, women marched and protested for their rights, many similar to those of 1968, as he has become the leader to freely sexualize women on national television and social media [1].

More importantly, the image that painted feminists as bra-burners has carried over into today’s society [6]. This myth not only embedded an immensely negative connotation to the name of feminism, but it also demonstrates the perpetual feminist struggle that links 1968 to present-day. Additionally, the empowerment represented by the symbolic language of the freedom trash can has been overshadowed by the demeaning association of women as merely bra-burners [5]. This persona endorsed the idea that women wasted an excessive amount of their energy and attention on trivial objects and thus, are not taken seriously as a unifying movement [3]. Today, women already lack a strong audience but are also forced to be attached to a history that they had no control over. As a result, it is forgotten that these objects were originally thrown away to disintegrate constraining beauty standards and oppression, but paradoxically are the same objects that continue to hinder women from moving forward. The bra-burning myth, therefore, encourages conflicting feelings that impede on honoring the women’s effort and contribution to history [5]. 

“History is cyclical. As we look back on these 1968 protests, we are in the midst of another significant cultural movement led by women.” -Roxane Gay

Women’s march in Los Angeles, 2018 (Retrieved from NY Times)

By Nancy Nguyen

If you would like to learn more about another part of the feminist movement regarding motherhood, please click here:

The Pill and the Push Back Against Compulsory Motherhood

Bibliography

[1] Gay, Roxane. “Fifty Years Ago, Protesters Took on the Miss America Pageant and Electrified the Feminist Movement.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 1 Jan. 2018, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/fifty-years-ago-protestors-took-on-miss-america-pageant-electrified-feminist-movement-180967504/

[2] Gibson, Megan. “A Brief History of Women’s Protests.” Time, Time Inc., 12 Aug. 2011, content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2088114_2087975_2087965,00.html

[3] Greenfieldboyce, Nell. “Pageant Protest Sparked Bra-Burning Myth.” NPR, NPR, 5 Sept. 2008, www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=94240375.

[4] Hanisch, Carol. “A Critique of the Miss America Protest.”  Feminist Document: Critique of the 1968 Miss America Protest by Carol Hanisch of the Women’s Liberation Movement, www.carolhanisch.org/CHwritings/MissACritique.html

[5] Lee, Jennifer. “Feminism Has a Bra-Burning Myth Problem.” Time, Time, 12 June 2014, time.com/2853184/feminism-has-a-bra-burning-myth-problem/

[6] “Miss America Protest.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 4 Apr. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miss_America_protest

3 thoughts on “Bra-Burning: A Myth That Nearly Extinguished Feminism”

  1. I really enjoyed your discussion on how the women’s movement in 1968 connects to the women’s movement today, especially in terms of how it is viewed in the public narrative. For example, when you say “the empowerment represented by the symbolic language of the freedom trash can has been overshadowed by the demeaning association of women as merely bra-burners”, this captures the way the past interferes with today with regards to feminism. It reminds me a little bit of how today people try to vilify the feminist movement by calling feminists “feminazis”, when in reality feminism is a movement about promoting equality for people of all genders. This post was particularly informative because it addresses something that is spoken of as fact but is not actually the true historical narrative.

  2. I really enjoyed reading this post. I posted regarding the “I Am A Man” movement which was another form of rebellion. https://www.gilderlehrman.org/content/civil-rights-posters-1968 I realized that they are more related than I imagined because people came together for what they believe in, as Americans often do. I love the idea of bra burning to represent this issue. This is definitely an unforgettable feminist movement outbreak.

  3. Your post was very interesting! It flowed very well because you wrote it in order of the events that happened. I really liked the part where you talked about how women today have forgotten that items that oppress us today were thrown away during these events. It made me feel more connected to your topic. Also, your post connects with ideas from class very well. You did a great job!

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