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.
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.
- Barbara Mikkelson (Snopes): Red Hot Mamas
- Jone Johnson Lewis (About.com): Bra-Burning Feminists: NOT
- (H-Net, 24 June 1998): Feminist Myths: Bra-Burning Discussion (June 1998)
- 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.