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FAQ: Didn’t feminists used to burn their bras as a political statement?

The stereotype of the “bra-burning feminist” is one that remains today as a sort of feminist bogeyman to scare women (and men) away from the movement by pointing out how “ridiculous” and “radical” feminists are. The rub is, feminists never burned their bras as a political statement.

According to Snopes:

In the late 1960s, radical feminists began using rhetoric and protest tactics as a way of indelibly imprinting their message on the public. They staged dramatic and at times deliberately provocative demonstrations (which they called “zap actions”) to focus attention on women’s need for liberation. The first and most famous of these stagings occurred at the 1968 Miss America beauty pageant when a small group of women picketed the pageant with signs proclaiming, “Let’s Judge Ourselves as People.” They crowned a live sheep, and dumped girdles, cosmetics, high-heeled shoes, and bras into a “freedom trash can” while the cameras clicked. There was no fire, let alone busty feminists stripping off bras in public to toss them onto bonfires, but the image of brassieres going into a trash can was captured in a memorable photo. A flippant print reference to bra-burning then melded itself into memories of this photo to create the false memory now so vivid in recall.

[Barbara Mikkelson (Snopes): Red Hot Mamas.]

Although there is evidence to suggest that the image was originally invoked in an attempt to relate the feminist protest to that of young American men burning their draft cards, the resulting stereotype instead came to symbolize frivolity (FAQ entry) and reinforce the myth that feminists are against sex (FAQ entry) and hate men (FAQ entry).

In order to truly debunk this myth, it’s necessary to consider the underlying issues related to the stereotype and the protest that spawned it:

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 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…

[Response from Eve Rosenhaft (H-Net, 24 June 1998): Feminist Myths: Bra-Burning Discussion (June 1998).]

It’s important to remember that, even though the particular claim is a myth, the act that it symbolized — a rejection of patriarchal beauty standards and the trappings that go with them — is absolutely a feminist cause and not trivial at all.

Related Reading:

Introductory:

Clarifying Concepts:

  • Regarding the impact of the bra-burning myth:

    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.

    [Response from Anya Jabour (H-Net, 23 June 1998): Feminist Myths: Bra-Burning Discussion (June 1998).]
  • Bra-burning and the radical (straw)feminist:

    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.

    [Response from Tom Heaney (H-Net, 23 June 1998): Feminist Myths: Bra-Burning Discussion (June 1998).]
  • On the politics of bras:

    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.

    [Jone Johnson Lewis (About.com): Bra-Burning Feminists: NOT.]
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10 comments on “FAQ: Didn’t feminists used to burn their bras as a political statement?

  1. Even after reading all of this, I feel better about enjoying wearing a bra.

    But really it’s just because I see it as a useful undergarment and not a restrictive one. I’m just glad the bras of today are more comfortable than the bras of yesterday.

    I’m glad I can stand up for rights without wearing wires. And sanitary belts. Good gravy, I’m so glad we don’t have sanitary belts.

  2. [...] already tackled the bra-burning myth, and the all feminists are hairy-legged myth; in the works is tackling the subject of feminism [...]

  3. The bras of the 60s, the first kind they forced on me? HORRIBLE! And ugly, too. Only slutty girls, I was told, wore different colors! Never mind red or blue! (my favorite colors) Red and blue together was unheard of!

    I thought bra-burning totally rocked, so I guess I am showing my age with that, huh? ;)

  4. Daisy –
    Bra burning might rock – if you don’t need it. For women with breasts bigger than DD a bra is essential. I’m an F cup and I even sleep in in a supportive top, otherwise my breasts hurt like hell. I’d say bras are liberating – could you run a marathon without one? Could you do any sports freely and comfortably without one? It’s men who like women to go bra-less under their tops. This way, they are more accessible for them. Until they age and sag, that is… grrrr

  5. My impression from earlier reading was that the particular bras dumped into the Freedom Trash Can were padded bras, “training” bras and cone-cup monstrosities. The demo was concerned with items that constricted women and that expected women to project a false physicality – they had no issue with functional bras simply supporting the breasts.

    I’ll have to see if I can dig up a cite for that.

  6. Eva:

    It’s men who like women to go bra-less under their tops.

    That blanket statement is as problematic as the idea that bras have to be a bad thing.

    Personally, I go braless most times because it’s much more comfortable. I’m between a B and a C cup, so unless I’m exercising or whatnot it doesn’t present a problem.

    I would highly recommend that you check out Why Women Wear Bras.

    Particular to your argument:

    Now, large-breasted women may find that going without a bra gives them pain. This is, however, an individual thing, so you can try it out and do what is comfortable for you.

    In one study about large-breasted women and shoulder pain caused by bras, ladies removed the weight from their shoulders for two weeks, either by going braless or by wearing a strapless bra. Only one woman chose a strapless bra and all the others went braless. The researchers monitored the women for muscle pain and tenderness.

    Quoting the article, “Seventy-nine percent of patients decided to remove breast weight from the shoulder permanently because it rendered them symptom free.”
    (Ryan, EL, Pectoral girdle myalgia in women: a 5-year study in a clinical setting. Clin J Pain. 2000 Dec;16(4):298-303.

    I obviously believe that whether or not one wears a bra is an indivdual choice, but what I object to is the way that it is constructed by culture to be something “natural” and “normal” for a woman to have to do. Yes, bras can be useful, but I don’t believe that they’re as useful as is commonly held.

  7. Just to throw another anecdote into the data pool, when I had my breast reduction surgery a few years ago my post-op breasts were supported for the first weeks by figure-of-8 bandages around the torso, NOT over the shoulders. When I think back to that time, that was mostly more comfortable than shoulder-supported brassieres, it’s just that brassieres are more convenient.

  8. [...] The ’60s which, as we all know, were the good old days of activism what with all the draft card and brassiere bonfires. Of course, what they did not agree upon was what the correct content of extreme moral commitment [...]

  9. This FAQ has been really enlightening. I’d always wondered why feminists would want to choose freedom from their bras as the message to be associated with.

    I’d always thought the bra as a functional garment, that when worn allowed women greater freedom. Now the dumping of padded and training bras makes sense. That seems a message that is particularly relevant today, as ‘sexy’ clothing is marketed to younger and younger girls. In general I find it a sure sign that gender inequality still exists that such vastly different garments are marketed to 10 year old boys and girls whose bodies are essentially the same shape.

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