The 1968 Miss America protest where, contrary to popular belief, no bras were burned. Photo via Media Myth Alert.
In this excerpt from his new book Pranksters: Making Mischief in the Modern World author Kembrew McLeod challenges some rosy visions of 1960s progressive movements. In truth, he writes, men dominated most counterculture groups of the era. Our cultural conception of ’60s feminism gets something else wrong, too: the idea that feminist protesters were rampant bra burners.
Many leftist men were dismissive and patronizing toward feminist activists or were openly hostile to the cause. One minor exception was a group that formed within the Yippies: the Women’s Caucus Within the Youth International Party, which formed a Yippie subgroup named SCREWEE!—or “Society for Condemning the Rape and Exploitation of Women, Etc., Etc.” But for the most part, women were marginalized from leadership positions in New Left groups. Feminist trailblazer Robin Morgan noted at the time that they were relegated to typing speeches delivered by men and, as she put it, “making coffee but not policy.” Ironically, the roles women played mirrored the straight society that chest-thumping radicals claimed they were making a break from. One pamphlet published by a chapter of Students for a Democratic Society cluelessly stated, “The system is like a woman; you’ve got to fuck it to make it change.”
The 1968 demonstration against the Miss America Pageant was a turning point for the women’s liberation movement. The sisters were doing it for themselves—coordinating with local governments, getting permits, and organizing press events. They designed a “zap action” to provoke a debate about beauty pageants and the patriarchal society that props them up. “There were about thirty-five of us,” says Roz Payne, a member of the Newsreel Film Collective. “We got on the bus and traveled down from New York to Atlantic City to have a little fun.” To dramatize women’s enslavement to “beauty standards,” some chained themselves to a gigantic Miss America puppet. They took a cue from the Yippies’ pig-for-president campaign by using a sheep to “parody the way the contestants (all women) are appraised and judged like animals at a county fair,” as one leaflet stated. “We crowned the sheep Miss America,” Payne tells me. “Some men would give us thumbs down. I remember one guy saying, ‘I like the ladies.’” The New York Times reported that the women performed their guerrilla-theater event on the boardwalk for “650 generally unsympathetic spectators.”
The action was collaboratively conceived, but Robin Morgan did much of the organizing work. She was a former child actress, and her extensive media contacts helped generate plenty of coverage. Her press release promised “Picket Lines; Guerrilla Theater; Leafleting; Lobbying Visits to the contestants urging our sisters to reject the Pageant Farce and join us; a huge Freedom Trash Can (into which we will throw bras, girdles, curlers . . .).” It slyly added, “In case of arrests, we plan to reject all male authority and demand to be busted by policewomen only. (In Atlantic City, women cops are not permitted to make arrests—dig that!)” A few did get arrested when an “inside squad” of twenty women disrupted the pageant’s live broadcast. They screamed “Freedom for Women!” and unfurled a banner that trumpeted “women’s liberation,” which stopped the pageant for ten excruciating seconds. The television audience could tell something was wrong—Miss America trembled and stuttered after the shouting began—but it was unclear what exactly was going on. Another woman was arrested for spraying the mayor’s seating area with Toni hair conditioner, a pageant sponsor. The police arrest report referred to it as a “noxious odor,” which wasn’t exactly the best product placement for the company.
The women refused to speak with male reporters. Although critics spun this as knee-jerk man hating, it was a calculated gesture meant to highlight women’s marginalized place in the newsroom. Morgan says, “We estimated correctly that it would raise consciousness about the position of women in the media—and help more women get jobs there (as well as helping those who were already there escape from the ghetto of ‘the women’s pages’).” They had good reasons to distrust mainstream media, especially because the protest’s most memorable event—bra burning—never took place. “I never saw a bra burn in my entire life,” says Roz Payne, who filmed the Miss America protests. She adds, laughing, “It was probably a man who started that story.” Actually, the bra-burning urban legend can be traced to a young female reporter at the New York Post. Lindsy Van Gelder wrote an article that drew parallels between the Miss America protest and another contemporary form of mass resistance: draft-card burning. Her satirical article, “Bra Burners and Miss America,” backfired after its ironic tone was lost in translation. An annoyed Art Buchwald criticized the protestors in a syndicated column titled “Uptight Dissenters Go Too Far in Burning Their Brassieres.”
Bitch magazine cofounder Andi Zeisler reminds us in Feminism and Pop Culture that today’s bras are nothing like the ones those women railed against: “Bras, girdles, and—oof—nylon hose were both restrictive and compulsory for women in professional settings, and dumping these underpinnings really was a tangible act of defiance.” The mental image of bra burning quickly took root in public memory, even though there was no photographic evidence to verify it happened. People just filled in the blanks with their imagination. Robin Morgan noted at the time that the bras tossed in the Freedom Trash Can “was translated by the male-controlled media into the totally fabricated act of ‘bra-burning,’ a non-event upon which they have fixated constantly ever since.” What she didn’t say was that event organizers actually did plan to set fire to the trash can, but Atlantic City officials denied their permit on the grounds that it was a fire hazard (the boardwalk was made of wood). In feminist historian Alice Echols’s history of the movement, she notes that at least one of the organizers, hoping to stir up media interest, leaked word of the planned bra burn- ing to the press beforehand. “Those feminists who sanctimoniously dis- avowed the bra-burning as a media fabrication,” Echols insists, “were either misinformed or disingenuous.” Once the bra-burning meme was unleashed, the women’s movement lost control of the narrative, and it was used as a bludgeon to caricature feminism.