Bra-Burning and the Waves of Feminism

Bra-Burning and the Waves of Feminism

By Lara McCormick, Honeycomb Contributor

There’s a certain image that is sometimes portrayed as we think of the women’s rights movement of the 60’s and 70’s. We think of images like Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan. Another popular image associated with this era is bra-burning. Women are remembered for taking to the streets, ripping their bras off, and lighting them on fire just to “screw you” to the patriarchy. While the story fits the aesthetic of the day, the bra-burning is more myth than truth. 

The Miss America Protests

The protest in question occurred on September 7th, 1968 when the New York Radical Women group gathered in Atlantic City to protest the Miss America pageant. Objects were being hurled into the “Freedom Trash Can” that represented the oppression of women such as lipstick, high heels, and, you guessed it, bras. There’s plenty of dispute about whether anything in the trash can was lit on fire. Many protestors claim there was no fire, others say there was a fire but it was small and quickly extinguished.

The Miss America pageant protest was a part of history known as second-wave feminism, or radical feminism. Many women who led protests during this era had come from a background of working in the civil rights movement or protesting the Vietnam war. The women were protesting the beauty standards enforced by the pageant and the value of beauty above all other traits for women. This image of inspiration for American women was dubbed by protestors as the “Mindless Boobie-Girl Symbol.” Some protestors have reflected on the protest many years later and admit the greatest flaw of their actions was painting the Miss America contestants as the enemy instead of allies. The protest was a pivotal moment for American women feeling oppressed by the patriarchal nature of society, but what stuck in the minds of the public was the image of a bra-burning feminist.

Even though no bras were actually burned at the protest the symbolic language spread quickly amongst news outlets. The New York Post was the first outlet to use the phrase with an article released before the protest that said: “Lighting a match to a draft card or a flag has been a standard gambit of protest groups in recent years, but something new is due to go up in flames this Saturday. Would you believe a bra burning?” It was originally meant as a tagline to get people interested in the story but it quickly became much more. The language was used to criticize protestors as they were painted as a threat to standard American life.

Miss Black America and Black Feminism 

What often is forgotten about the Miss America protest in 1968 is the corresponding protest that occurred the following day at the first Miss Black America pageant. The pageant was created as a response to the lack of diversity in the Miss America competition and the image of white women as the ideal standard for beauty in the country. There was no bra-burning option at this protest, but it highlights the tension that was present in the women’s liberation movement and the divide between women of different races and ethnicities.

The women’s liberation movement has been criticized for its leadership and promotion of white women and exclusion of queer people and people of color from the movement. Each group had to create their own separate movement to gain rights and freedoms. A primary illustration of this is the creation of Black feminism. Black feminism was started by Black women who felt rejected by both Black men who led the civil rights movement and White women who led the women’s liberation movement.

Intersectional Theory and Fourth-Wave Feminism

These divides have prompted a new way of thinking known as intersectional feminism, a key component to the fourth wave of feminism we are currently experiencing. Kimberle Crenshaw created the term as a way to recognize different types of oppression and inequality and how they can compound. Different types of inequality can include race, gender, class, sexuality, or immigration status. Many people experience multiple types of inequality and intersectional feminism strives to acknowledge the relationship between multiple sources of inequality and how they can create different experiences for individuals. One example is the wage gap. All women, on average, earn less than men, but that disparity is larger for Latinx and Black women.

While bra-burning never actually occurred at the protests 1968, the protests themselves were the start of the second wave of feminism that gave women many rights that are valued today. The feminism movement has adapted and changed to critiques and will have to continue to change as our world becomes more diverse and new forms of inequality are created. 

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