1968’s Miss America Protest and the Myth of the “Bra Burner”

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[Bettmann/Getty Images] Demonstrators picket the Miss America Pageant, in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on September 7, 1968. The protest, known as “No More Miss America!,” was organized by the New York Radical Women in an effort to draw attention to the women’s liberation movement.
On June 5, 2018, the Miss America Organization announced it would no longer hold the swimsuit competition as part of the Miss America pageant competition. The organization explained its decision as an attempt to redefine the role of the competition and make it more relatable to the concerns of younger women today. The swimsuit competition has been part of the pageant since it began in 1921, but has received mounting criticism for promoting the objectification of women to be valued only for their appearance. In the 1960s, for example, the pageant became a target of women’s liberation movement groups, who opposed it through nationwide demonstrations, one of the most well-known being the 1968 Miss America pageant protest in Atlantic City on September 7—where the myth of the “bra burner,” a derogatory term for women’s rights activists of the time, was born.

One of the most common references to the beginning of the women’s liberation movement was the burning of bras at the 1968 Miss American Pageant. It was during a changing time in the country as the status quo was openly questioned, especially traditional roles for women.

The Birth of a Myth

There is no evidence that bras were ever burned in the fight for women’s rights. The origin of the story comes from the planning for a protest at the pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey. At the event, women sang songs that parodied the beauty contest and the symbolism of selling women’s bodies: “Ain’t she sweet; making profits off her meat.” Close to 400 protesters gathered on the boardwalk on September 7, 1968, the day of the pageant.

(Bev Grant/Getty Images] On the Atlantic City Boardwalk, a demonstrator stands beside a Miss America marionette in the “Freedom Trash Can” during a protest against the Miss America beauty pageant, in Atlantic City, New Jersey, September 7, 1968.

The protestors were seeking to draw attention to the objectification of women and sought to do it on a national stage. It was organized by the New York Radical Women and the Redstockings. Prior to the protest, the Redstockings issued a press release in which they announced their plans to have a Freedom Trash Can. In the can would go bras, false eyelashes, and women’s magazine as symbols of women’s oppression. This action was building on another common protest of the time: burning Vietnam War draft cards as part of the peace movement.

 

Spreading the Message

Social protest movements needed the media to spread their message. In particular, the protest needed a visual element in order to attract the attention of television cameras. New York Post reporter Lindsay van Gelder received a press release from the Redstockings and wrote a preview story in advance of the protest and noted that the undergarments would be burned. The Atlantic City Fire Department denied the women a permit, so nothing was actually burned. Other media outlets picked up on the imagery, and the incorrect news spread quickly, covered in newspapers across the country.

For the protesters, the good news was that the women’s protest received media coverage. The bad news was that the movement was saddled with the bra-burning myth that would be satirized and alienate some women from a common cause.

What’s in a Name

From that initial coverage, the myth grew. Feminists were commonly called “bra burners.” This term was usually said in a derogatory way by those opposing change. The bra-burning myth tended to marginalize feminism and further separated radical women from the central concepts of the women’s liberation movement. In recent years, this myth has been exposed in numerous books and articles. Those women who were in Atlantic City wrote of their non-bra-burning experiences. Van Gelder, who wrote the bra-burning preview story, has noted her role and regret in spreading the false news. The act of bra burning is often cited today as an example of a media-generated myth.

About the author:

Kimberly Wilmot Voss is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Central Florida and the vice head/research chair of the History Division of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. She is the author of The Food Section: Newspaper Women and the Culinary Community (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014) and a co-author of Mad Men & Working Women: Feminist Perspectives on Historical Power, Resistance and Otherness (Peter Lang, 2014), and she has published more than 30 articles about women and journalism history.

Voss, Kimberly Wilmot. “Bra Burning.” Pop Culture Universe: Icons, Idols, Ideas, ABC-CLIO, 2018, popculture.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/1736837. Accessed 12 June 2018.

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