Origins: One of the strongest images we've incorporated into our stereotype of the militant feminist is a mental picture of her ripping off her brassiere and flinging it onto a bonfire as a way of signifying a shucking of the yoke of male oppression. This memory is constantly reinforced by numerous references in popular culture to bra-burning feminists, and it has thus been carried forward from a previous generation into this current one. So entrenched is this mental image that folks rarely question its validity, instead accepting it as unchallenged fact.
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.
According to Susan Brownmiller, author of American Feminine, the famous 1968 demonstration in Atlantic City did not involve bra burning:
The scheme backfired. The headline writer quickly picked up upon the possibilities of braless feminists, and "bra burning" made it into the headlines. The "draft card" nuance Van Gelder had been striving for was immediately lost (though it probably would have sailed over any number of heads anyways), swamped by the mental imagery of braless feminists screeching slogans and waving signs as they angrily demanded to be taken seriously.
Barbara "mystery solved: we've found the smoking 38D" Mikkelson
Last updated: 27 September 2007
Brown, Scott. "The Superwoman Is Weary, the Young Are Complacent, But Feminism Is Not Dead." Time. 4 December 1989 (p. 80). Freeman, Jan. "Deerslayers, Bra-Burners, Honeymoons and Car Designs." The Boston Globe. 7 October 1992 (Living, p. 75). Froelke, Marcia. "'Angry' Editor Aims to Set Record Straight on Feminism." The Toronto Star. 2 March 1993 (p. B3). Hymowitz, Carol and Michaele Weissman. A History of Women in America. New York: Bantam Books, 1978. Unger, Arthur. "Beauty Pageants: The Debate — and High Ratings — Go On." The Christian Science Monitor. 16 September 1983 (p. 16).